Why is sectarianism still a problem in Scottish football?

In the past month, the ugly issue of sectarianism in Scottish football has been making headlines again.

Kilmarnock’s former Rangers striker Kris Boyd was struck by a coin and called an “Orange bastard” while he warmed up in front of travelling Celtic fans at Rugby Park.

At Ibrox, Boyd’s manager Steve Clarke had chants of “sad Fenian bastard” aimed at him during a Scottish Cup replay against Rangers.

The roots of sectarianism run deep in both Scottish football and society in general, and its most obvious manifestation is in the heated rivalry between Glasgow’s Old Firm rivals.

But why does it continue to disfigure the beautiful game north of the border when the religious divide that spawned it is no longer prominent in most people’s lives?

A city divided or united?

Located on the River Clyde, Glasgow grew to become a shipbuilding and steel-making powerhouse in the industrial revolution; its citizens take pride in the city’s history and what it means to be Glaswegian.

When tragedy strikes, its inhabitants are united. In recent years, the city has pulled together after the George Square refuse lorry accident (December 2014), which left six people dead and 15 injured.

The same community spirit was to the fore a year later when a police helicopter crashed into the Clutha Bar, killing 10 and injuring 31. In between these sad events, Scotland hosted the Commonwealth Games using the slogan of ‘People Make Glasgow.’

All the stranger then, that an animosity borne out of differing religious beliefs still features in the life of this cosmopolitan, cultured city.

Of course, other football teams are available in the greater Glasgow area, but for most, it’s a case of being either Celtic or Rangers, green or blue, Catholic or Protestant.

For a good many, the rivalry will be confined to jokes and banter, but for others, it’s all about recalling famous battles in the 1600s or the Troubles in Northern Ireland.


One simple definition of sectarianism is “excessive attachment to a particular sect or party, especially in religion.”

The anti-sectarian Scottish pressure group Nil By Mouth defines it as: “Narrow-minded beliefs that lead to prejudice, discrimination, malice and ill-will towards members, or presumed members, of a religious denomination.”

Essentially, it’s a form of hatred, and Rangers and Celtic fans have a long and inglorious history of hating each other.

Even today, the politico-religious undertones still persist. Rangers current third strip is bright orange, while Celtic’s away shirt features a cross on its crest rather than the usual shamrock.

But both clubs only date back to the late 19th century. The Catholic-Protestant animosity extends back to the Reformation of the 1600s and was later fuelled by waves of Irish migrants, first fleeing the potato famines and then searching for work in the newly industrialised west of Scotland.

For much of the 20th century, Catholics in Scotland – particularly those of Irish descent – viewed themselves as an oppressed minority and Celtic as a symbol of their identity.

Rangers, meanwhile, were associated with Protestant unionist-loyalist values. Their first major signing of a Catholic player only came in 1989, when ex-Celtic striker Mo Johnston joined them.

Still an issue

That was 30 years ago now, and things have moved on, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 mostly ended the Troubles.

Throughout this era of conflict in Northern Ireland, it was common knowledge that in Celtic supporters clubs, money was raised for the IRA, while Rangers fans were associated with loyalist political and paramilitary groups.

Orange walks, in the build-up to the June 12th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, were huge affairs that would happen across Scotland and still do in some Protestant areas.

These links to the hostilities across the Irish Sea fuelled the violence that was once commonplace at Old Firm games but is now becoming a thing of the past.

Safe seating and better policing have played their part in this, as have broader changes in the make-up of Scottish society mirrored in football.

It is also ironic that in a survey in 2017 that almost three-quarters of Scots identified as atheists. With religion supposedly going into remission in Scotland, why are over 100,000 Scots indulging in pro-Catholic or Protestant songs and chants every weekend?

Some would argue that sectarianism, and other forms of hatred, have simply migrated online with the advent of social media.


Social media platforms have allowed bigots of various kinds to hide behind made-up names and share their toxic views and/or aim abuse and threats at others.

Some commentators believe this web-based bile has led to a rise in sexism and misogyny towards woman in football, as well as racist remarks made to black players.

Of course, you could argue that being part of huge crowds at Ibrox or Parkhead also offers a degree of anonymity which makes people behave in ways they wouldn’t outside of a football stadium.

Calling someone a ‘Fenian’ or a ‘Hun’ dehumanises them. As Jon Ronson discusses in his book So, You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,  we hurl abuse at people with whom we have so much in common – the only thing that really separates us is our football teams.

Ronson also claims: “A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”

A football fan can shout and swear for 90 minutes and then return to their normal life. Both Old Firm clubs have supporters who are civil servants, lawyers, doctors and other professionals who will sit among those shouting what amounts to vile hate speech – maybe they will even join in with some of it.

Society’s problem

A rise in hate crimes and hate speech haven’t only affected Scottish football or Scotland itself. From 2016- 2018, hate crimes in the UK increased by 40%, seemingly demonstrating a growing lack of tolerance for other people’s views and values.

Roisin Wood, chief executive of the anti-racism group Kick It Out, has become concerned with the rise of hate crime in football especially in England’s top divisions. There were more than 500 reports across the top four league last season. Five years ago, there was under 100.

‘How do you remove something from the game that has been there longer than the sport itself?’

Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings, on loan at Aston Villa, said: “On social media its all too easy to be racist. Just hide behind a fake picture, fake details and get away with it?”

It is difficult to find a solution to the rising tide of hate crime that isn’t only blighting football in Scotland but throughout the UK. With diverse communities behind each club, it is difficult to treat them all the same.

Pundits have suggested that the clubs should take more responsibility for rooting out the problem and if they fail to do so face either financial sanctions or point deductions.

But, in the context of Old Firm matches, how do you police or punish thousands of people in a stadium for singing sectarian songs or using chants that incite hatred?

Liverpool legend John Barnes recently said: “We all discriminate, and we have to admit it. Why I say that I discriminate unconsciously is because the environment that I’ve been brought up in shows me that and continues to show me that.”

Discrimination and sectarianism may be a part of everyone’s daily lives. However, it is something that we should strive to eradicate from our society as we strive to build an equal and free-thinking country.

It needs to be done on an individual basis, one by one, changing views and attitudes.

The hardest thing with sectarianism and its links to Scottish football is that anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant sentiments have existed since the 1600s. How do you remove something from the game that has been there longer than the sport itself?

Changes have to be made now. There has been far too much finger-pointing and blaming others from clubs who don’t accept that their own fans have issues. Clubs and fans need to accept that they have problems with racism, sectarianism and general discrimination and fix those from the bottom up.