When soccer and racism collide

Scottish-born Ireland internationals Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy, can expect a frosty reception when they line out for the Republic of Ireland tomorrow night. Aine Haggerty explores why.

When soccer and racism collide

Throughout their playing careers in Scotland, both players suffered sustained racist abuse as a result of their Irish heritage and choice to play for Ireland at an international level, and tensions are rising ahead of the game this week.

But it’s not only McGeady and McCarthy who have experienced the problem. Perhaps the most high profile victim in recent times in Scotland of anti-Irish abuse is former Celtic manager, now at Bolton Wanderers, Neil Lennon, who on top of dealing with particularly vicious hate lived a life with his family under heavy security protection.

Lennon’s life was seriously threatened when he was sent viable explosive devices in the post by two Rangers fans in 2011.

Several people were jailed during his time at Celtic for a range of offences including beating him unconscious on a Glasgow street, sending explosive materials in the post, physically attacking him on the touchline during a live television broadcast of a Celtic game, and threatening and abusing him on social media channels.

And Lennon was not the only victim of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic hate in Scotland during that time.

The late Paul McBride QC was also sent explosives in the post alongside former MSP Trish Godman, who was targeted for wearing a Celtic top — the strip of the club formed by Irish Famine immigrants and considered by many of its fans as their only big connection to their Irish roots in Scotland — to the Scottish parliament.

But are the problems so prominent in the football arena representative of wider attitudes in Scotland towards the Irish, or do these incidents represent the death throes of historic discrimination?

According to the historian Professor Tom Devine, an authority on the Irish community’s history in Scotland, there has been a “revolutionary” change in the Scottish landscape in recent decades, although there is a residual attitudinal problem towards the Irish community played out particularly in the tribal football culture, where it can still lead to violence.

“If you look back over the last century, there’s obviously been quite a massive change,” he says.

“We’ve moved on from the sectarian crisis of the 1920s and 1930s when the Church of Scotland not only wished to prohibit Irish immigration, but wished to deport migrants.

“From that to the present day there’s been a revolutionary change. First of all, the descendants of the Irish Catholic immigrant class are now in the condition of occupational parity in Scotland.

“Discrimination against them is long gone. My own belief, and this is controversial, is that sectarianism is one of the least of Scotland’s social problems.

“Obviously what we do still have is tribalism and sporting symbolism, and the divide between Celtic and Rangers is even more newsworthy because of the gap since the two clubs last played.

“You could get some of that bile channelled into the event on Friday.

“The problem experienced by the two Scottish players who play for the Republic of Ireland (McGeady and McCarthy) wouldn’t be an issue if the country they’d chosen was Brazil or somewhere else.

“So there is still a lingering issue but it’s nothing like it would be 30 or 40 years ago.”

Author and journalist Phil Mac Giolla Bháin — a Glasgow-born Irishman who now resides in Donegal — argues that while life for the Irish in Scotland has improved, there are still discriminatory attitudes towards the Irish buried in the culture of Scotland and they must be properly addressed if the country can ever move on.

“There is a failure at the level of official Scotland and in the media to accept what is aimed at Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy as racism, it hides within the ‘sectarian’ word,” he says.

“It’s failing to recognise the ethnic, the national element. It’s the country of choice that’s the issue, it’s the Irish part that’s the issue.

“The reason it is such a stubborn problem is the failure to properly recognise it in the first place. There needs to be a national conversation led by major stakeholders to first acknowledge the problem and then to allow cultural space for an expression of Irishness that would bring Scotland into line with other societies and allow Scotland to have some veracity in the claim that it is the best small country in the world.

“At the moment when it comes to Irishness, it looks like the best small minded country in the world.”

Mac Giolla Bháin’s claims about lack of teeth in the media to call the problem out is underlined by some articles published ahead of the game in Scotland which caused a degree of controversy. In the Daily Record, a comment piece titled ‘I hope James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady get pelters from Scotland fans at Parkhead’ by former Scotland legend Gordon McQueen prompted a reaction from Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given, who described the comments as “unfair” and “over the top”.

While Scotland is undoubtedly a changed place for the descendants of desperate Irish immigrants who for decades suffered inequality and racism, the culture still has dangerous traces — particularly in football — and McGeady and McCarthy may this week feel the brunt of it.

* Angela Haggerty is a Glasgow-based journalist and editor of the Common Space

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