There's been a lot of talk about fan behaviour in the media in the past few weeks. One question a lot of Rangers supporters have been asking is both a simple and a complex one: Do we get a fair press?
It's certainly open to consideration - we won't name names in this article, and risk falling into the trap of not practicing what we preach. But there have been a fair few figures in the media who immediately commented on sectarian chants at the 4-2 victory over Hibs as though it marred the win, who were cautious, tardy and/or withdrawn when it came to criticising the scenes at Stair Park.
So it's no surprise that so many Rangers fans, having had crowd trouble used as a stick to beat them with on many an occasion, want to leap on any ill behaviour of Celtic support. It's an easy way to defend our club, by pointing out that other people do it, and why shouldn't they be banned and pilloried? More often than not, though, the desire to do so is not motivated by any genuine offence or anger - it's simply a way to deflect blame from the club and get the other lot in trouble. That's totally understandable if you believe, as many do, that we're unfairly pilloried in the media. It might well be justified. But it's worth considering whether it's a little bit short-sighted too.
Are clubs responsible for this? The simple answer is no. Clubs attach themselves to existing ideologies where sentiment runs high - Celtic didn't invent Irish Republicanism any more than Lazio invented Fascism. The problems existed before the clubs - in a way, it's part of the appeal of the Old Firm and why it means so much.It represents something older and bigger than just football.
Fans will often debate about which songs are acceptable or not. Many Rangers fans now might consider 'The Billy Boys' to be unacceptable, for instance, while other Protestant or Unionist songs, like The Sash, aren't. The government doesn't care about these distinctions - the rules are simply imposed on songs containing individual words, in the former case, 'Fenian', or in a handful of selections any mention of the Pope. Derry's Walls, however, is allowed - despite being about basically the same thing. There's no consistency at all, and people get understandably confused.
The impression from the government is often that they wish the Old Firm did not exist, or that it had no sectarian elements to it at all, and was merely Govan Blues vs East End Greens. In other words, they'd be happy if our clubs lost all of their tradition and heritage, Protestant, Catholic or anything else. That's not something we should be prepared to accept, and not something we should help just because it'd be bad for Celtic. And in any case, do we think if this happened, that sectarianism would disappear overnight? Would it even make any difference at all? For a government that's supposed to be talking Scotland up and advertising it abroad, why is there so much revulsion towards one of the most unique and fiercely-contested matches in global football?
The SFA are likely to agree here too. The baffling determination to try and copy England in everything Scottish football does means that we've had a push towards family-friendly atmospheres in the hope that it will boost attendances as it did down south. Go and see how hard it is to get tickets for Dumbarton-Raith in comparison to an Old Firm Derby to see how that works out. As a proportion of the population, Scotland often leads the world for the number of fans going to games. The problem is TV money, and that's not going to go up by sucking the life out of the most powerful assets the game up here possesses.
The reason for this inconsistency is simply that it doesn't stand up to scrutiny, that if the existing rules were universally applied, we'd have a laughably heavy-handed and draconian system in place which would kill the game. 'No Pope of Rome' and 'Brits Out' might be extreme points of view if taken literally, but are expressions of a dislike of the Catholic Church or a belief in a United Ireland really views so awful that they can't be permitted to be expressed, even in such a vulgar way, in a free-thinking democracy? There's no direct call to violence there, and even if there was, what about the old staple of many a club, '"Build a Bonfire?" That's the way we're going when we make arguments like this, because there are far too many outside the clubs eager to see us head down that road.
You shouldn't hold your breath for anybody to be arrested for singing "Brits Out" at Stair Park, and that's a good thing, because we all know if everybody who was singing 'The Billy Boys' at big games was arrested we'd run out of cells. Any action taken will probably be towards the pyrotechnics, a bizarre bee in the bonnet for clubs and the powers that be alike. It's worth nothing that pyrotechnics are now entirely legal in Norway thanks to - shock - the fans and authorities trusting one another on certain issues and working together. A simple change from the standard Old Firm response of "this is banned, so why is this allowed?" to "this is allowed, so why is this banned?" would go a long way to preventing this. It's not much to ask.
Of course, we know sectarian incidents are far more common around Old Firm days. That's obvious. But the perception of it often exceeds the reality - the Scottish Government's report here says that people thought sectarianism was a far greater problem in 1999 than in 1979 (because aye, when I think of the 70s, I think of a time of peace and fraternity between Protestants and Catholics.) The Omagh bombing was fresh in the memory in '99, of course, but so was something else even more recent - the infamous 1999 'Shame Game.'
The theme of perceptions not matching reality is a constant one repeated throughout the whole report, and indeed other similar ones. According to this report from Glasgow City Council people are, for instance, fifteen times more likely to be worried about a gay couple moving in next door than a Catholic one, and sixteen times more likely to be worried about Muslims than Protestants (page 19.) See how many column inches and hand-wringing those groups will get compared to the endless diatribe about 'Scotland's Shame.' Indeed, Catholics and Protestants were at the very bottom of the pile, even behind Jewish people. Would you get the impression from the media that more people in Scotland are anti-Semitic than anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant?
We're not here to deny the existence of sectarianism, or suggest anything as simplistic or crass as 'man up, it's only banter.' The simple fact is that the desire to deal with the problems doesn't accompany any real trend towards serious issues. We have a government which has brought out new (unpopular, reviled) laws because Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist had an argument.
And if you're not keen on the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act and the way it victimises supporters? Expect more acts like it if we continue along this path. Football stadiums might be a common place to be on the receiving end of sectarian abuse, but compared to elsewhere, it's one of the least concerning situations to be in - I'd be a lot more worried about being called a 'Hun' at a bus stop at 4am or by my boss or landlord than by someone sitting in the Ibrox away end. But football fans are an easy target - why would police bother to 'tackle sectarianism' by doing dangerous things like breaking up street fights and internal investigations when they can simply film someone singing a naughty song and arrest them in their bed at their leisure? Why would the government go to the difficult process of addressing the shocking level of segregation among Scottish children when they can simply confiscate a few Tricolours or Ulster flags?
We don't want every game to be clouded with shocking abuse, but we have to take a realistic approach to tackling this. If The Billy Boys and No Pope of Rome are banned, then Brits Out and Up the Ra must be too - there's no doubt about that. But we have to ask ourselves if that's what we really want, or if we need to take a step back and put things into perspective. A climate of hostility and suspicion will certainly be the result, and that's not likely to help matters.
Nobody is suggesting that we ignore an ancient rivalry, join a circle and hold hands, or have a new Council of Nicaea. All we're saying is that sometimes, just rarely, the interests of Rangers and Celtic fans can be in alignment, and that when they are, we can leave the pettiness aside for a wee bit. We often mock Celtic fans for hating us more than they love their own club - let's not fall into the same trap.