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by Mark McLaughlin
06 March 2017
'Culture of denial' persists about sectarianism in Scotland, according to chair of advisory panel

'Culture of denial' persists about sectarianism in Scotland, according to chair of advisory panel

Football supporters - Image credit: unknown via Flickr

Proposals to make Scottish football clubs strictly liable for their fans’ behaviour must remain an option until they “demonstrate serious commitment” to tackling sectarianism, a government-appointed adviser has warned.

Sectarianism remains “a deep-rooted and serious problem” but a “culture of denial” persists in Scottish society, according Dr Duncan Morrow, chair of the independent Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland.

Morrow said dialogue with football’s governing bodies, who have rejected his findings, has remained “frustratingly circular”.


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Community Safety Minister Annabelle Ewing said the report shows “work remains to be done in eradicating sectarianism”.

The Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) and the Scottish Football Association (SFA) issued a joint response insisting the public perception of sectarianism at matches “was not the same as the reality”.

They said football has come a long way since the Old Firm “shame game” in 2011, which saw three Rangers players sent off, touchline and tunnel confrontations and 34 arrests.

Morrow said: “They also expressed the view that sectarian singing is not a problem at Scottish games and, in fact, it is the perception of it that is the problem, with this perception being very different from the reality.”

A survey by international players’ union FIFpro in 2016 found 32 per cent of Scottish players felt threatened and 23 per cent said they had been victims of discrimination on matchdays, against a global average of five per cent.

Morrow said: “SPFL and Scottish FA stated categorically that they did not recognise the findings. They also expressed shock at the publication of the report.”

He added: “Discussions with the SPFL and the SFA in relation to tackling sectarianism remain frustratingly circular. 

“There appears to be a belief that football is singled out as a scapegoat.”

He went on: “The continuing reluctance of the football authorities to demonstrate serious commitment on this issue, means that strict liability must remain a real and present option.”

Morrow welcomed the authorities’ engagement with the Scottish Government’s Active Scotland team to address “unacceptable conduct”.

But he said: “I am sceptical that they will be sufficient to change the evident sectarian behaviour in Scottish football, and I remain seriously concerned that the primary concern of the authorities remains to avoid responsibility rather than to take action.”

Morrow stressed that sectarianism in Scotland was not confined to football, and said responses he received from some other sections of society were also “somewhat defensive and appeared to anticipate an unhelpful climate of blame or shame”. 

He said: “While nobody denied the existence of residual sectarianism in general, sectarianism in any specific organisation or group was energetically refuted.

“Attempts to name sectarianism, for example in flute bands, football, education, journalism or political and cultural life, are more often than not met with energetic denial, and a sense that the remedy will be destructive of associations and passions which are regarded as positive.”

Morrow has called on the Scottish Government and Parliament to show leadership and acknowledge the persistence of sectarianism without turning it into “a party-political football”. 

He said: “In particular the Scottish government should seek assurance that sectarianism is being actively addressed through local government. This is essential if progress is to be maintained.”

He added: “With notable exceptions, the response of local authorities, including the absence of any response to this review from COSLA, indicates a disappointing lack of urgency.”

Ewing said: “It is very clear from Dr Morrow’s report that work remains to be done in eradicating sectarianism from sections of our society.”

She added: “The Scottish Government cannot eradicate sectarianism in isolation and while we are committed to taking forward the recommendations that are for us, we must also continue to work with local authorities, the third sector, community groups, football clubs and more to foster a Scotland where sectarianism is consigned to history.”

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