Too firm a hold in the past

26th June 2009 at 01:00
Change is a long way off, writes Aidan Reid, 17, winner of the best feature award in this year's Scottish School Magazine competition, run by PPA Scotland and sponsored by The TESS

Scottish Society has many problems to contend with. Our levels of obesity are higher than almost any other country; we have a "booze" culture, with binge drinking becoming the norm for teenagers; individuals in some areas of Scotland have a third world life expectancy, such is the deprivation and poverty of these places. So you may find it strange that I would include a football rivalry among these major problems, but it is a serious issue dividing Scottish society. Why does the Old Firm derby still cause and represent a significant problem in Scotland today?

Celtic and Rangers started in 1888 and 1873. Celtic for the Irish Catholics and Rangers for Protestants. For several years, the rivalry was friendly, with the term "Old Firm" used to describe their flourishing business relationship. But, as both began to dominate Scottish football, the rivalry began to grow more intense and, when religious tensions began to be factored in, a simple inter-city match became a heated derby, with opposing fans feeling hatred for each other.

This bitterness led to violence which, even in the 1960s, was still common place. Clashes of fans led to terrible consequences as many people died in fights after Old Firm matches during this decade. Consumption of alcohol plus a deep loathing for each other's supporters meant trouble when the teams met.

The main problem, however, was not the violence, but the divide in society and the prejudice it encouraged. Forty years ago, a Catholic school would celebrate if one of their pupils managed to become a lawyer or achieve other professional success and, in one case, let the rest of the school have a day's holiday. This demonstrates how low Catholics were in the pecking order in society. Discrimination led to animosity towards the "Protestant establishment" and their team, Rangers.

This divide is no better demonstrated than by the case of Jimmy Johnstone. A small man, he made up for his size with a speed and ability that dazzled defenders across Europe. He is so highly rated by the Celtic supporter, that he was voted their greatest-ever player. Yet he only played for Scotland 23 times, and this can be attributed to a major bias towards Rangers players over Celtic. If Celtic players were played, they were booed.

Rangers also had a shocking stance when it came to Catholic players. Barely a single Catholic signed for the club, and those that did could not publicly reveal their faith. Open discrimination was common. Danny McGrain, one of the best full backs of his era, was rejected for having what appeared to be a Catholic name; he was a Protestant.

Celtic did not seem to have a problem with Protestant players, but their refusal to let Jock Stein, their most successful manager, join the Celtic board because he was a Protestant, highlighted their prejudice. Celtic's songs, on the surface, did not seem bigoted, but many originated from an organisation still feared and hated across Britain - the IRA. Although the worst atrocities of this group were still to come, there is no defending Celtic fans' adoption of these songs.

So, what has improved over the past 40 years? Well, it no longer matters what religion you are when applying for a job. The divide seems to have disappeared in society, and this has led to a calming down of Old Firm rivalry, with the bitterness disappearing alongside the progress made to abate religious tensions. Preference for Rangers over Celtic players for Scotland is also a problem of the past; open bias appears to have vanished. Due to campaigning by both clubs, bigoted songs have all but disappeared, demonstrating the clubs' willingness to change.

Sadly, there is a minority who continue to fight progress, and keep their hatred alive. When Rangers fans were banned from singing their offensive song "Sash and the Billy Boys", certain individuals came up with a hate campaign known as Big Jock Knew to replace it. When people found this unacceptable, they began to sing the famine song, which demands that Irish immigrants "go home", much like the racists of the Deep South and their chants for African Americans to "go home" to Africa.

Meanwhile, at Celtic, despite steps taken to eradicate bigotry from supporters, many cling to old IRA songs; you still hear these chanted every time Celtic visit an away ground, despite the acts committed by the IRA over the past 30 years.

It is also ill-advised to wear either club's shirt when walking around Scotland. Only seven years ago, a Celtic fan was stabbed by Celtic fans. He had committed the "heinous" crime of wearing a blue jumper.

There is also the matter of Orange walks. Set up over a century ago, they commemorate England's victory over a Catholic uprising in the north of Ireland and still take place in Glasgow. This is, simply, a celebration of the slaughter of Catholics, as demonstrated by their main song, "The Sash", and is the main event for what is known as "the Orange order". This group has become a figurehead for anti-Catholics, and anyone who has witnessed one of these marches will have seen the "tag-along" Rangers fans. Yet nothing has been done to curb the marches.

The situation has improved since the 1960s, with regards to the Old Firm, but these changes are superficial for some. Bigotry still is a major factor in this rivalry, and in Scottish society today there are those who will never change. There is also the simple truth that, without the prejudice, both clubs would lose a huge amount of popularity. The only reason Falkirk get 6,000 watching their games while Rangers get 50,000 is down to the passionate rivalry among the fans, which is fuelled by bigotry. Take away the bitterness and the Old Firm have very little reason to attract supporters outside Glasgow, especially given their decline in quality. This has led to an indifference to the bigotry shown by the clubs themselves, which ensures that hatred is perpetuated, no matter what progress is made by society. Sadly, the end to trouble at an Old Firm game is a long way off.

Aidan Reid is a fifth-year pupil at Dollar Academy. This is an abridged version of the article which appeared in the school magazine "The Galley".

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