After George Square’s dangerous disorder: Rangers supporters and anti-Catholicism in Scotland

Pat Kelly analyses the roots of the bigotry and sets out what now must be done to rid us of it.

There was nothing new about Rangers fans engaging in hooliganism, thuggery and violence after they had been presented with the Scottish League trophy in May. And there was nothing new about the same fans engaging in anti-Catholic abuse, not just in George Square but at targeted Catholic Churches. It has happened with a weary regularity and they have largely escaped anything other than token censure. Politicians and journalists would usually condemn the violence and sectarianism, only to add some false equivalence of Celtic supporters singing republican songs or deflecting the conversation to the existence of Catholic schools as the root of the problem.

However, what was new after the George Square event was the Government’s unequivocal condemnation, not just of the violence and vandalism but the anti-Catholic nature of much of the behavior. Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Humza Yusef all denounced the vile anti-Catholic prejudice and bigotry and the police joined in to attack the anti-Catholic and anti-Irish behavior of the supporters. Journalists had sometimes tried to tackle the problem in the past, but the George Square events gave them an opportunity to write columns about Scotland’s problem of anti-Catholic prejudice without having to look to the other side of Glasgow to ‘balance’ their reports.

Rangers once represented the dominant tradition of Scotland, and were seen as the football club of the establishment. Its fans were mostly white, Protestant, and working class and the club boasted of never signing Catholic players. When Graeme Souness took over as manager in 1986, he insisted on changing that policy, but the distinctive Protestant culture of the club remained and with it the anti-Catholic atmosphere. Terry Butcher, one of a number of Englishmen who played for the club in those years, described how he got sucked into the ‘religious stuff.’ Although he was not religious, he found himself singing anti-Catholic and anti-Irish songs at supporters’ functions, and referring to people in derogatory sectarian ways. He admitted it was his wife who forced him to look at his behavior and he was embarrassed about the type of person he had become. A decade later, despite a number of Catholic players joining the club, Walter Smith, who took over from Souness as manager told Graham Spiers of the Herald, ‘there is a Protestant superiority syndrome around here, you can feel it’.

Politically, Rangers’ fan base ranges across the spectrum. In the past, Communist union leaders and Labour MPs could be counted amongst the core support, as could an abundance of Tories. There are Rangers fans who support independence but they are likely to be, proportionately, a lot less than the national average. They are certainly not as vociferous as the ultra-unionists, many of whom are members of the Orange Order, an organisation that can mobilise large groups through formal and informal networks. The club’s new head of public relations, David Graham, who left his position as a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) councilor on Belfast City Council to take up the job, is a ‘worshipful master’ of the Orange Order.

And there are the far-right descendants of the Billy Boys, the notorious street gang of the 1920s and 1930s who were used by fascists to break up unemployment marches and events organised the left. Their leader, Billy Fullerton, was a member of the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, and set up a Scottish chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The song about the Billy Boys continues as one of the Rangers anthems and has provoked UEFA, European Football’s governing body, to close sections of their stadium for European matches for its line about being ‘up to the knees in Fenian blood’. It is perhaps this faction David Graham had in mind when his press release, in the wake of the George Square rampage, stated that a ‘small minority … besmirched the good name of Rangers Football Club’. Of course, it was a minority of the massive Rangers fan base but 15,000 fans, nonetheless, marched from Ibrox to George Square with the expressed intention of taking over the city in defiance of Government Covid restrictions. That is a fairly sizable proportion of their active support.

The far right, ultra-unionist, bigoted element of the Rangers’ support is a problem not just for Scottish football. Similar groups attacked the independence supporters in George Square in 2014, and were in evidence as ‘The Loyalist Defence League’ in George Square in 2020, ‘protecting’ the war memorial and other statues. There have been calls for the football authorities to apply sanctions in a similar way to UEFA. This might work within the stadiums but away from football, anti-Catholic prejudice is all too evident in Scottish society. Now that the Scottish Government has called out the problem, action has to be taken by the police and the judiciary.

Writing in the Times, Kenny Farquarson pointed out that when London police received reports of anti-Semitic slogans allegedly being shouted from a convoy of cars flying Palestinian flags, Metropolitan police launched a city-wide hunt. Within hours a number of arrests had been made, four men being charged with racially aggravated public order offences. These offences were mild by comparison to what happened in Glasgow, but, so far, we have not seen the same response. There are enough laws to tackle the issue but there has to be a willingness to implement them. The government should now instruct the police authorities that anti-Catholic prejudice should be given top priority and there should be an expectation that the judiciary would follow convictions with the stiffest possible sentences. The time for anti-sectarian summits and well-meaning initiatives has past. The disgraceful events in George Square have shifted the debate about religious bigotry and the deeply embedded anti-Catholic stain in Scotland.

Pat Kelly is a former Scottish Secretary of the PCS union and is convenor of editorial board of the Scottish Left Review