Neil Lennon and James McClean expose dark forces beneath veneer of tolerance

Neil Lennon has hit out at the abuse he has suffered in Scotland, writes Tommy Martin

Neil Lennon and James McClean expose dark forces beneath veneer of tolerance

Neil Lennon has hit out at the abuse he has suffered in Scotland, writes Tommy Martin

Oh, the wee huns are shite!

Oh, the wee huns are shite!

Oh, the wee huns are shite!

Oh, the wee huns are shite!

Celtic are beating Hearts 5-0 and the Parkhead faithful are in fine voice. As the song suggests, games against the Edinburgh side are a sort of Old Firm Light for the Celtic faithful, a PG-certified take on the Glasgow derby’s X-rated thrills.

It is also my son’s first Celtic game. Why bring a child into the maelstrom of Scottish football’s tribal squabbles, you may ask? Well there is not much choice in the matter, to be frank. If a troublesome fondness for Tottenham Hotspur can be carefully sidelined, he will represent the fifth generation of Celtic fans in our family, a connection, we think, that goes back to the club’s foundation in 1888.

No pressure, kid.

He seems to be enjoying himself and the raucous atmosphere helps. He gets James Forrest’s name on his jersey and even has a meat pie. Thankfully there’s too much noise for anyone to hear him say that he felt a bit sorry for Hearts and that maybe it would be nice if they got a goal too.

Because there is no mood for mercy today. Not because this is a top-of-the-table Scottish Premiership clash. Everyone knows Celtic are going to win the title anyway, regardless of the anomalies of the early-season league table.

No, this is an act of vengeance, a dishing out of rough justice.

It’s just a few days since Hibs manager Neil Lennon was struck by a coin thrown from the home fans at Tynecastle during a scoreless Edinburgh derby. Lennon had goaded the Hearts supporters behind his dugout after a disallowed goal for the home team. The fallout broke along similar lines to previous incidents involving Lennon: one side that he was the victim of sickening sectarianism, the other that he brought it on himself with his foolhardy belligerence.

It’s no surprise which side the Celtic support take on the latest controversy involving their hugely popular former player and manager, but it’s not just a coin that has them riled up, or the graffiti outside Tynecastle that read ‘Hang Neil Lennon’. Lennon’s Friday press conference before Hibs’ game with St Johnstone is front page news on Saturday morning and Celtic fans heading to their game would have read his thoughts with relish.

“I’ve been subjected to this for 18 years. I’m 47, I’m fed up of it,” Lennon said.

“You call it sectarianism here in Scotland, I call it racism. If a black man is abused, you are not just abusing the colour of his skin, you are abusing his culture, his heritage, his background.

It’s the exact same when I get called a Fenian, a pauper, a beggar, a tarrier. These people with the sense of entitlement or superiority complex. And all I do is stand up for myself.

We are staying in Edinburgh and get a lift to the match with Denis Boyle, a friend of my father’s, his cousin Barry Ward, and Barry’s son Daniel. They are both second generation Donegal immigrants whose people hail from the same neck of the woods as myself. For most of the way along the M8 toward Glasgow’s East End, the talk is of what Lennon said. I tell them his comments ring true with the man I got to know through his work as a TV pundit: passionate, articulate and fiercely intelligent. They say that he has articulated their real lived experience, a Scotland in which anti-Irish bigotry persists and is couched, as Lennon suggests, in the language of supremacism.

Their worldview explains why Celtic still matters even as the club’s status as a European football power has long since waned. My father, a Scottish catholic of mixed Irish and Italian ancestry, doesn’t hold much with nationalism. He doesn’t feel Scottish or British, and he doesn’t feel Irish either. Celtic has always been his identity. The great football clubs always represent something bigger, and while their fans may sing songs of Ireland, in truth Celtic is a nation unto itself, a place to belong for people whose old home couldn’t have them, and whose new one didn’t want them.

Like many of their kind in the 131 years since Celtic was founded to raise money to feed starving Irish immigrants, Denis and Barry have done well in a country that was once so hostile to their ancestors. Generations educated in catholic schools have formed a solid middle class and the worst excesses of religious discrimination in workplaces and professions are no more.

And yet there Lennon is, a successful Irish catholic calling out a society in which he can be called “a Fenian, a pauper, a beggar, a tarrier”, and still be criticised for bringing it upon himself.

Lennon’s comments chime with what these days are called ‘identity politics’. His point is that talk of ‘sectarianism’, with its both-sides-as-bad-as-each-other inference, ignores the bigger picture of a victimised minority group and hostile dominant culture.

The problem with identity politics is that the group in question is often able to excuse itself of taking responsibility for its own failings. Celtic supporters may sing songs that glorify murderous Irish Republicanism as a response to the bloodthirsty sectarian chants of their Rangers rivals, but they embarrass the club nonetheless.

Yet when you put the fact that the majority of all religiously-motivated hate crimes in Scotland are committed against catholic s, according to Scottish government figures published this year, alongside the long list of threats and acts of violence visited upon Lennon, a picture begins to merge of something deeply sinister, attitudes and actions that tally with racism and intolerance on the rise far beyond Scotland; the kind of stuff James McClean is dealing with right now in the latest iteration of his poppy saga.

“There’s a problem. It’s a big problem,” said Lennon last Friday. “And you all turn your back on it, you all laugh about it, and brush it aside. It’s right there. I keep hearing all this ‘One Scotland’, we are open to everyone. At times it hasn’t been the case to me.”

These might well be the most stinging of Lennon’s words, and the ones we should all heed. Post-Brexit referendum, Scotland sees itself as smarter, better, and more welcoming than their English neighbours immersed in self-destructive fear and loathing. But as with the strange stirrings that our own presidential election threw up here, dark forces are often hidden only by a veneer of tolerance.

With Hearts beaten, Denis decants to a Christy Moore concert in Glasgow and Barry takes us back to Edinburgh. Our two boys snooze in the back seat and Barry tunes into the radio phone-ins.

Soon talk turns to whether Lennon would return to Celtic as manager someday. Should you ever go back? We’re not sure. Nonetheless, Barry says “I love Lenny, for all his flaws; I love everything he stands for.”

Why not? All he does is stand up for himself.

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