Sectarianism still forms divide

Sectarianism goes beyond football matches and a proper understanding is vital if we are to release the hold it retains on some, writes Peter Geoghegan.

In Scotland, “sectarianism” is one of those words that are guaranteed to spark debate. For some, bigotry is a poison that infects every pore of society, from the workplace to the terrace. For others, it’s a relic of a dim and distant past, overstated, overindulged and often met with a rolling of the eyes.

Responses to last week’s report on sectarianism commissioned by the Scottish government typify Janus-faced attitudes to what James McMillan (in)famously dubbed “Scotland’s shame”.

“Scotland growing tired of sectarianism”; “Sectarianism still a force in Scotland”; “Old Firm still to meet bigotry study group” and “Sectarianism not caused by denominational schools” were among the eclectic headlines that greeted the findings of the advisory group on tackling sectarianism in Scotland.

Sectarianism, as Duncan Morrow, the chair of the advisory group established last August, noted at the report’s launch in Glasgow on Friday, “is an issue that is either dealt with by silence or sensationalism”. Having spent his career toiling at the coalface of community relations in Northern Ireland, Dr Morrow knows a lot about sectarianism and there is much to commend in his report – not least that now, almost a decade and a half after being established, the Scottish parliament has a firm basis on which to ground its well-funded anti-sectarianism strategies.

While the report’s sections on football and education have understandably grabbed most attention, arguably its most useful service is in providing a clear definition of what sectarianism actually is.

Sectarianism is often understood in purely religious terms – Catholic or Protestant – but the way these identities are formed owes far more to ideas about politics and ethnicity. Just as in Northern Ireland, bigotry here has little, if anything, to do with doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants: calling someone a “Hun” or a “Fenian” is not a cipher for a theological debate about consubstantiation versus transubstantiation.

Instead, as the advisory group recognises, sectarianism has everything to do with how “them” and “us” are created, and then maintained through symbols, from football clubs to flags to parades.

The report also brings a much-needed dose of reality to the often febrile conversation about sectarianism in Scotland. Bigotry exists – there have been more than 7,000 sectarian incidents reported since 2003, with only 30 per cent of those occurring at football matches – but it is not the over-arching structural inequality it once was.

Large-scale migration to Scotland from Ireland began almost 200 years but it was only in the 1950s and early 1960s, with the advent of new foreign-owned industry and the nationalisation of older manufactures, that discrimination against Catholics started to end.

Fifty years ago someone like me – a first generation Irish Catholic who has lived in Scotland for almost ten years – could have expected to face discrimination in most avenues. Certain firms categorised job applications by religious affiliation, and Catholics were rarely given skilled posts.

But in my time on this side of the Irish Sea, I’ve only been on the receiving end of sectarian discrimination once, and that was from a foul-tongued teenager in a bus station in Glasgow at one in the morning.

That is not to say that sectarianism does not exist in Scotland. At last Friday’s press launch for the advisory group report, in Glasgow, Dr Morrow was grilled about the focus placed on institutions, and specifically local authorities, in failing to adequately address sectarianism.

It has become a truism to say that sectarianism is a thing of the past in Scottish workplaces – since 2003, it has been illegal for employers to discriminate on grounds of religion and belief (and no belief) – but there are plenty of recent examples of sectarian behaviour in the public sector, from the two Stirling council staff investigated in 2011 for posting anti-Catholic messages on social media to the bin man in Airdrie who, because he supported Rangers, was attacked with a shovel by a colleague.

“All local authorities should embrace the issue of tackling sectarianism with the conviction and confidence with which they have approached other equality issues,” last Friday’s report avers, quite reasonably.

But the problem remains one of leadership. Despite the best efforts of Jack McConnell, sectarianism was largely absent from public discourse in Scotland until 2011, when a combination of parcel bombs and fisticuffs aimed at Celtic manager Neil Lennon catapulted the issue on to the media agenda, nationally and internationally.

The clumsy Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill (which has, if anything, inflamed the situation) quickly followed. Justice minister Kenny MacAskill caught the shrill mood of the time when he declared at the 2011 SNP conference” “It’s not about the Boyne in 1690 or Dublin in Easter 1916, it’s about dragging a small minority of folk in our country into the 21st century.”

The Scottish government has, to a large extent, put its money where its mouth is. Around £9 million in funding is being invested in anti-sectarian work; while a lot of this cash is going to the police, a sizeable chunk has been handed to voluntary and community groups. But there still seems to be resistance in some quarters: as many headline writers noted last week, neither Celtic nor Rangers managed to find the time to meet with the advisory group during the last 16 months, despite both clubs profiting handsomely from public funding for anti-sectarian initiatives (to the tune of around £1m each over the last decade).

The danger now is that having done sensationalism for the last couple of years, Scotland could revert to the status quo when it comes to sectarianism, silence. The advisory group report makes a series of useful recommendations – including the suggestion that parades balance the right to march with the rights of communities and that there is no need for further legislation to tackle sectarianism – but institutional change will require active political will at every level. A genuine discussion about shared campuses in our schools is long overdue.

As David Scott, head of anti-sectarian strategy Nil by Mouth, says: “Sectarianism is not the biggest problem Scotland faces but we should not underestimate the hold it has on people who inhabit that world.”

Nil By Mouth has itself contacted 120 quangos in Scotland offering free anti-sectarian training. One would hope that each organisation takes up the offer.

A couple of days before the advisory group report was launched, I found myself standing beside a 40-foot high corrugated metal fence at Cupar Way in West Belfast. The euphemistically titled “peace wall”, the longest such barrier in Europe, separates Catholics on the Falls Road from Protestants on the Shankill. Every night at seven o’clock a gate linking the two sides is bolted shut. Nobody I met in West Belfast thought the wall would come down any time soon.

Thankfully walls topped with barbed wire do not divide Catholics and Protestants in Scotland, but many still live largely separate existences. Sectarianism here is not the all-encompassing behemoth, but there are still too many barriers in too many people’s minds. Dr Morrow’s advisory group has provided the Scottish government with a road map; they now need to follow it.

This column originally appeared in the Scotsman, 19 December, 2013.

A Nation Once Again?

I wrote a long piece on Scotland’s independence referendum, with a particular focus on the Irish community in Scotland, for the Sunday Business Post. Here it is:

Standing on the banks of the River Clyde, at the Broomielaw in Glasgow, on a warm summer’s day it is hard to believe that this was once one of the busiest quaysides in the British Empire. There are no ships, and few people. A handful of stray tourists take pictures beside the imposing cast iron mooring posts.

On these same mooring posts, unused today, boats from across the world would once have been tied up. Many were steamboats laden with passengers that came from across the Irish Sea: in the 19th century the Broomielaw was scene of one of the largest migrations in the history of Britain, or Ireland. With little or no belongings thousands of Irish emigrants would have walked the hundred metres or so from the teeming dock to the centre of Glasgow, and, from there, to a new life in industrial revolution Scotland.
paddlesteamers, broomielaw, 1890 MI_4011_4681
Half a million Scots of Irish descent – and the rest of the country’s population of some five million – could be about to embark on another journey. Although this time without going anywhere.

Next September, Scotland will go to the polls in a referendum on independence. A ‘yes’ vote will spell the end for the three centuries-old Act of Union and usher in the birth of a new Scottish state.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s pugnacious First Minister and the leader of the Scottish National Party, has said he is ‘confident’ of winning next year’s vote. Opinion polls suggest he faces an uphill battle – support for independence rarely rises above 30 per cent. All the main UK parties, including Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, are firmly against the prospect of Britain breaking up. ‘Better Together’, a cross-party campaign calling for a ‘no vote in 2014, has been formed, headed by former Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling.

Scotland does not feel like a country riven by political rancour. Beyond the occasional saltire on a flagpole, or ‘Yes Scotland’ bumper sticker, there are few overt manifestations of nationalism, or unionism, on the streets of Glasgow. This is not Belfast, with its atavistic politics and exaggerated public displays of fealty, but surface appearances belie deep divisions between supporters and opponents of Scottish independence. And there are many Irish-Scots on both sides of the debate.

‘I don’t think economically or socially independence is a good idea,’ Michael Mahon, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for Uddingston and Bellshill, a constituency on he outskirts Glasgow with a high concentration of Scots of Irish descent. ‘I say that not because I am an Irish Catholic but because I represent a constituency that I think would be better off in the United Kingdom.’

A former welder, with a broad chest and an easy manner, McMahon speaks fondly of growing up in an Irish household in a mining town in Lanarkshire: ‘It was Irish music, Irish culture. We’d celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, not St. Andrew’s Day’. However, this enthusiasm for all things Irish did not extend to politics. ‘I don’t see this connection between Scottish nationalism and Irish nationalism that some people do. I just don’t get it.’

When we meet for coffee in an upmarket hotel overlooking George Square, Glasgow’s main civic space, McMahon is sporting a ‘United with Labour’ pin on his lapel. United with Labour is another platform advocating a ‘no’ vote, created by the Scottish Labour Party, many of whom are uncomfortable sharing a stage with Conservatives in Better Together. The Tories remain deeply unpopular in Scotland where the legacy of Margaret Thatcher remains a toxic one: there is just a solitary Conservative member of parliament north of Hadrian’s Wall.

celticIf Michael McMahon represents Scotland’s established Irish community, Feargal Dalton is the face of the fluid new generation. Born in Monaghan and raised in Dublin, Dalton came to Scotland in his 20s, as a member of the British armed forces. Dalton, 40, retired from the services in 2010, and last year was elected as the SNP representative for Partick on Glasgow City Council.

‘Like many immigrants to Scotland, I quickly began to ask myself why wasn’t Scotland in full control of its own affairs. With this in mind, I looked at the political parties and policies on offer and voted SNP at the first Holyrood election and every subsequent election,’ Dalton, who became a physics teacher after leaving the armed forces three years ago, says.

‘It wasn’t until I became a husband and father in 2006 that I joined the SNP. Having now established roots in Scotland, its future became a very real and personal issue. Like most parents, I want what’s best for my children. A very simply but significant part of that, is to grow up in a country that has the confidence to govern itself.’

Independence, Dalton says, ‘will give Scotland greater control over its economic future. This will allow Scotland to become more prosperous but a fully sovereign Scottish parliament will also allow us to build a fairer Scotland.’

That Scotland is seriously talking about independence at all can, at times, seem remarkable. Back in 1995, George Robertson, then Labour shadow secretary of state for Scotland, confidently predicted that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson was trying to appease sceptical unionists and it looked, for a time, as if he was right. Labour dominated the first decade after devolution in 1997.

But all that changed in 2007, when the SNP won a narrow victory in elections to the Scottish parliament at Holyrood. Then, in 2010, a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in London, despite the Labour voting actually increasing in Scotland. The following year Alex Salmond’s party surprised everyone – including themselves – by achieving the seemingly impossible, an overall majority in the Edinburgh parliament and, with it, a mandate for a referendum on the party’s flagship policy, independence.

The SNP’s success is down, in part, to an ability to attract the Irish Catholic vote that was once the bedrock of the Scottish Labour party, says Peter Lynch, a lecturer in history at Stirling University and an expert on Scottish politics. ‘At the last couple of elections you had a lot of Catholics voting for the SNP. At the 2011 it was a huge number, more than voted for Labour’.

‘Twenty years ago what would divide the SNP and Labour was more Catholics voting for Labour but the religious thing is gone now,’ said Dr Lynch. This ‘religious thing’ was the fear among Irish Scots that Scottish nationalism was inherently anti-Catholic. It was a not a baseless concern: in the early days of the Scottish National Party (which was formed in 1934 by a merger of two smaller nationalist parties) some leading lights did espouse anti-Catholicism.Andrew Dewar Gibb, who held a as senior office within the SNP, wrote in overtly racist terms about the Catholic Irish community in Scotland in his 1930 book Scotland in Eclipse.

Earlier this year, firebrand leftwinger George Galloway warned Catholics in Scotland to ‘be careful what they wished for’ in the 2014 referendum. Galloway was a Glasgow Labour MP for almost 20 years, but is now better known for his turns on Big Brother and in front of the US senate. His comments were roundly critcised as out of touch and out of date.

‘I’d go so far as to say that the SNP is now a more natural home for the Irish community in Scotland. The Labour party has taken the Irish Catholic vote for granted and given them nothing in return,’ says Kevin McKenna, former executive editor of the Scottish Daily Mail. The SNP has pledged to support Catholic schools as long as they are wanted, a key concern of the Irish community in Scotland. ‘You get the impression that the SNP are trying to reach out to the Catholic community in Scotland,’ says Kevin McKenna. Alex Salmond has spoken regularly of the important role of the Catholic Church in Scottish life, although he has clashed with the hierarchy over his support for gay marriage.

‘It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of Irish Catholics are considering trading their loyalties from Labour to the SNP, although whether what would result in a vote for independence is another matter,’ says McKenna, whose great grandparents came from county Waterford at the start of the 20h century.

In January, McKenna caused a stir when he wrote in his weekly column in the Scottish edition of the Observer that the union with England becomes ‘more difficult to support’ with ‘each passing week’. The article was shared almost 15,000 times on Facebook.

‘Afterwards people said ‘why have you turned into a nationalist’. I said, ‘I haven’t’. I could find myself voting for Scottish independence but I’ll never be a Scottish nationalist. For me Scottish nationalism is quite far away from the internationalism I’ve been brought up to embrace. We’ve the chance to bring those international values into an independent Scotland, values that England seems to be moving further and further away from.’

One of the more curious aspects of debates about Scottish nationalism is how rarely debate is framed in terms of ‘identity’. In some respects the call for Scottish independence does resemble the small state nationalism of the late 19thand early 20th century – a desire for ethnic self-determination that mobilised nationalists in Dublin, Belgrade, Warsaw and myriad cities, towns and villages across Europe. And, for some Scots independence is undoubtedly about creating a ‘Scottish state’, in counterpose to an England-dominated United Kingdom. But most independence supporters cite political, not ethnic, differences to explain their desire to leave the union.

‘Lots of Scottish people aren’t bothered about identity in an ethnic sense. It’s not a vote winner. Salmond always talks about ‘the people of Scotland’, the people who live here, not ‘the Scots’,’ says Peter Lynch. ‘The identity you are talking about is shared political values and ideology.’

The electoral geography of Britain has changed enormously since 1955, when the Conservatives won a majority north of the border in a general electkon. Now more than three-quarters of Scots vote for centre-left political parties – the SNP and Labour – while England, particularly the southeast, votes Tory. This pattern, initiated in the 1960s, accelerated under Mrs Thatcher, as Scotland’s industrial heartlands rusted and the democratic deficit that saw Scotland return swathes of Labour MPs to a Conservative-dominated Parliament in London widened into a yawning chasm. Nowadays in Scotland ‘Tory’ is more likely to be used as a putdown than as a badge of political affiliation.

The breadth of these political variations has increased since Dave Cameron came to office in 2010. Controversial welfare reforms and privatisations, particularly of the National Health Service, have been deeply unpopular with many Scottish voters. London is often accused of being out of touch with the problems of post-industrial Scotland: unemployment, drug addiction, an under-developed private sector. Meanwhile, the SNP government at Holyrood has used policy to attempt to differentiate itself from Westminster: refusing to levy tuition fees on Scottish university students, introducing free prescriptions and pledging to ring fence the NHS as a wholly public service.

The Scottish government’s long-term ability to maintain a generous welfare state has been called into question – especially without tax hikes – but its commitment to a more expansive state reflects a growing disparity between the political cultures on both sides of the border.

‘In Scotland there is a huge middle and working class social democratic electorate who believe that beating up the poor is bad, that the sick should be protected,’ said Dr Lynch. ‘That’s a really mainstream broad category that 80 per cent or more of the voters will find attractive and they are themes that Yes (Scotland) will focus on in the referendum campaign.’

These are themes that chime with Danny Boyle, a 27-year-old community worker from Glasgow. Like around a third of Scots, Boyle says he has yet to make up their mind on independence, but describes himself as ‘edging towards voting yes’, primarily because of what he sees as the divergence between politics in Westminster and in Scotland.

‘I was brought up in a typical Glasgow Irish family: Catholic Church, Celtic football club, Irish music, Gaelic football,’ he says. ‘I was brought up with traditional Labour politics, solidarity and social justice.’

Boyle was initially supportive of New Labour but quickly became disenchanted over the party’s 13 years in power. ‘There was huge excitement in 1997 (when Tony Blair won a landslide) but what actually transpired was the broadening of the gap between the rich and the poor, the illegal war in Iraq, the deregulation of the banks.’

Although his parents were ‘solid Labour voters’, Boyle says that for the younger generation of Irish Scots nationalism is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition. ‘The experience of my parents with Scottish nationalism and the SNP 30 years ago was vastly different to now,’ he says. ‘Much of what was happening then was tied up to what was going on in the North of Ireland.’

The cessation of violence in Northern Ireland has certainly made it easier for Scottish nationalists to sell a vision of a stable independent Scotland where Protestants and Catholics (the vast majority of whom are of Irish descent) could co-existence peaceably. The Orange Order in Scotland are no longer the force they once were, although several thousand attended the annual ‘Orange Walk’ which was held in Glasgow city centre last weekend.

Sectarianism remains part of life for many, particularly around Glasgow’s footballing Old Firm, Celtic and Rangers. But there seems little fear in the Irish community that an independent Scotland would presage a rise in religious intolerance. ‘Sectarianism is a massive problem but I don’t think independence would make that worse. It will still be there whether we are in the union or independent,’ says Paul Cruikshank, a Catholic Glasgow law student.

Cruikshank intends to vote ‘no’ next year, partly because he fears that independence could make Scotland more insular and parochial. ‘There is a concern that if we were an independent country we would fall back on the short-bread tin image of ourselves – the haggis, whisky, Robert Burns.’

‘Most of my family are definitely voting no’ in next year’s referendum, says Cruikshank, who is a Labour party member. The cultural ties that bind Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom, particularly northern England, are among the main reasons for staying in the union, he says.

‘The north of Scotland and the south of England are very different places but the further south you go in Scotland and the more north you go in England, the more similarity there is culturally.

‘I don’t see myself as any different to another 20-year-old from another industrial city in the north of England.’

Labour MSP Michael McMahon shares this view. ‘When I was a union rep I would go to conferences across the UK and meet people from the same background as me from Newcastle, from Birmingham, from Liverpool, from London. I thought ‘I have more in common with these guys that with a Gaelic speaking crofter from the Western Isles’.’

The Better Together campaign has placed a heavy emphasis on this shared sense of British identity. The recent royal celebrations and last summer’s London Olympics seemed to elevate Britishness across the UK. Preliminary polling of younger Scottish voters – 16 and 17 year olds will have a vote in next year’s referendum, under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement between Cameron and Salmond – found that many feel a stronger affinity with Britain and Britishness.

Irish Scots might be assumed to have little investment in this conception of Britishness, but Peter Lynch thinks there are aspects of British identity that could appeal to the Irish community. ‘What Irish Scots are comfortable with are aspects of Britishness around welfare policy, defence, issues like that,’ he said. ‘If you can tap into those socio-economic issues, Britishness could be a good constituency for the Irish.’

Yes supporter Colette Campbell is less convinced. ‘I don’t think there are that many people who are proud to be British, particularly in Scotland,’ says the 24-year-old mother of two. Her family traditionally voted Labour but ‘most are now swayed towards yes’.

Campbell suggests that independence could be an opportunity to improve relations between Scotland and England. ‘The relationship would be much better if we were independent, it would be two countries relating to each other.’

And what if an independent Scotland was a failure? It could rejoin the United Kingdom. ‘Some of my friends are a bit nervous that Scotland couldn’t be a successful country. But at the end of the day we could always say ‘we got it wrong’ and they could take us back,’ says Campbell.

While Scotland considers whether or not to leave the UK, Britain itself could be on the verge of a historic departure – from Europe. Battered from the right by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and his own restive Eurosceptic backbenchers, David Cameron has pledged an ‘in/out’ referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union after the next general election.

While the noughties rallying cry of ‘Independence in Europe’ has been silenced, Alex Salmond senses that the prospect of an UK exit from Europe could push floating voters to the independence cause. ‘The Scotland/Europe platform was a huge advantage to the SNP in the Nineties,’ Scotland’s first minister told the New Statesman last month. ‘Because of what’s happened in Europe and the Eurozone it was becoming a negative. Now it’s swung back to being a strong positive. Scots are much more comfortable about being an independent country in a European context.’ Scotland has consistently been the most pro-European part of the UK – although even here support for the EU is running at only around 50 per cent in opinion polls.

In the event of a ‘yes’ vote next year, even opponents of the SNP seem confident that the country’s political classes would be capable of running an independent state. ‘Scotland has produced a lot of good politicians: Donald Dewar (Scotland’s inaugural first minister), (Labour leader) John Smith, who would almost certainly have been prime minister,’ says Paul Cruikshank.

‘As much as I disagree with Alex Salmond, I think he is a good politician. He has charisma and the ability to lead the country.’

Reflecting on political scandals in London, SNP councilor Feargal Dalton believes Scotland would be better served by running all its affairs locally. ‘We need look no further than Westminster with the MPs’ expenses and cash for access scandals. Holyrood has not been beset with such scandals, probably owing to its greater transparency,’ he said.

Scottish independence rarely features in public discussion in Ireland, and when it does its imbued with a degree of skepticism. Dalton attributes this weariness on the part of his compatriots to Ireland having reached ‘established country cynical stage’.

‘I have had taxi drivers in Ireland and people down the pub saying ‘why don’t you stay as you are’. That’s Ok when you have a written constitution, when you can vote off Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. We don’t have that,’ he said.

Peter Lynch sees another reason for Irish misgivings about a new independent state on its doorstep. ‘Irish politicians will probably want a ‘no’ vote because we are going to be trouble for them in terms of international trade and European institutions,’ he said.

Ireland has certainly influenced aspects of Scottish nationalist thinking. In 2006, Alex Salmond called on Scotland to join ‘Northern Europe’s arc of prosperity’, alongside ‘Ireland to our west, Iceland to our north and Norway to our east’. The SNP have abandoned talk of Irish success in the wake of the crash, but nationalists still look across the Irish Sea for policy proposals. Take corporation tax. Salmond recently announced that in an independent Scotland corporation tax would be just 17 per cent, lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Economic questions still remain about an independent Scotland. What currency would it use? How would it fund itself? The Treasury in London has warned that an independent Scotland, bereft of Westminster subsidies, would suffer financially. Nationalists respond by citing the country’s oil reserves – around 90 per cent of North Sea oil is in Scottish waters – and potential in areas such as renewable energy.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, says journalist Kevin McKenna. ‘I simply don’t believe that we would become a medieval, third world country, as the no side are depicting. But I don’t believe the nationalist rhetoric that we would become like the Nordic states,’ he said.

‘I suspect there won’t be that much difference, economically, so why wouldn’t you want your country to be independent?’

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 14 July, 2013.

Rangers' fall from grace leaves long list of victims

On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron paid a visit to Scotland. At a press conference, held in camera-sight of Edinburgh Castle, the Tory leader made an impassioned plea for maintaining two venerable institutions with long histories and uncertain futures: the political union between Scotland and England, and Rangers Football Club.

The question of independence for Scotland won’t be decided until 2014 at the earliest, but the fate of the blue half ofGlasgow’s Old Firm is likely to be settled sooner than that.

Cameron said that he wants to see Rangers, which has entered administration, “survive and thrive”. That the very survival of a football team that has won over 100 trophies in its 139-year history is up for any debate — much less one involving the UK Prime Minister — reflects the depths plumbed by the Ibrox club last week.

The case involving Rangers is complex, and growing more labyrinthine with every passing day. Having entered administration at the start of the week, on Tuesday it emerged that the subject of the petition by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) against the club was not the huge historic tax bill — estimated at £49m — accrued under the stewardship of former chairman Sir David Murray, but debts accumulated by Rangers since the takeover by Craig Whyte in May 2011.
At the Court of Session in Edinburgh, the administrators installed at Rangers admitted that HMRC were concerned about “the non-payment of circa £9m PAYE and VAT” since Whyte took the helm at Rangers. Later in the week, it was revealed that a recent £24m loan made by ticket company Ticketus to the club, and mortgaged against future sales of season tickets, had passed through the books of another Whyte company, not Rangers’ accounts as the chairman had previously claimed.

The parlous situation at Rangers has its roots in two related but distinct factors: the massive debts built up by Murray, and the opaque dealings of current chairman Craig Whyte. It was Murray, a businessman whose wealth was estimated at £720m in 2008, who kick-started the debt-fuelled bubble in Scottish football that brought Celtic to its knees in the early 1990s.

Under Murray’s stewardship, Rangers invested big as players of the calibre of Brian Laudrup,Paul Gascoigne and, infamously for £14m, Tore Andre Flo graced Govan. At one stage, the club’s debts stood at a vertiginous £80m, bankrolled in the hope of European glory that never fully materialised. (Somewhat ironically, Walter Smith did achieve runner-up slot in the Europa League in 2008 on a veritable shoestring.)

When the tsunami of the global financial crisis hit, Murray, who had invested heavily in property and mining, was washed up. With Lloyds banking group demanding repayment of an £18m loan, there began a torturous search to find a buyer for the club. Despite being one of the most famous names in world football, no suitable candidate emerged until last year, when Motherwell-born businessman Craig Whyte took the club on for a nominal sum and a tax bill just shy of £50m.

“I think Whyte’s strategy all along has been to take the club into administration, to sink the club and relaunch it as ‘New Rangers’ free of debt,” says Tom English, chief sportswriter at Scotland on Sunday. Currently, Rangers is in the hands of Duff & Phelps — a firm that previously advised the club, and were appointed by Whyte who, as the secured creditor, retains significant control over the administration process.

If Rangers are to avoid the liquidation that many commentators now believe is Whyte’s desired endpoint, the club will need to agree a company voluntary agreement (CVA). “But the level of indebtness is so great that you would need HMRC and other creditors to agree to accept a couple of pennies in the pound at the very most,” says the administrator of, an investigative website that has been publishing details of the club’s murky financial affairs, including the £49m tax bill arising from David Murray’s ill-advised, and subsequently illegal, use of Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs).

Whyte, as secured creditor, is protected to the tune of £18m: come what may, the current Rangers chairman, who was previously disqualified as a company director for seven years in 2000, will see a handsome return on his investment. But what happens to Rangers is less cut and dried.

Keen to send a message to the football world that paying tax is not an optional extra, HMRC are unlikely to accept a CVA that sees the taxpayer receive just a fraction of the debt owed. It would take a bid in the region of £70-£80m, way in excess of anything mooted so far, to reimburse all Rangers’ creditors.

What would the ramifications be for the green half of Glasgow if Rangers were to go the wall? Tom English believes that, whether they choose to admit it or not, both sides of the Old Firm are mutually dependent: “(If Rangers were gone) Celtic would win the league by huge margins every year. Player recruitment would suffer, the fans would get bored, Sky would definitely renegotiate the TV deal (the SPL’s £80m deal with Sky and ESPN is predicated on four Old Firm matches a season).”

It’s a point reiterated last week by Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond. The ScottishNational Party leader said that Celtic and Rangers “need” one another. “The most die-hard Celtic supporter understands that Celtic can’t prosper unless Rangers are there,” he said.

The Celtic Park hierarchy poured scorn on Salmond’s comments, stating that any supposed reliance on their arch rivals was “simply not true”. However, many Celtic fans are more circumspect, fearful of the prospect an SPL without Rangers.

There is also a sense of deja vu among the denizens of Glasgow’s East End. Back in 1994, after years of trying to match Murray’s exorbitant spending at Rangers, the club were on the brink of bankruptcy before businessman Fergus McCann stepped in. McCann’s almost singular focus on building a sustainable football club at a time when Rangers were marching to a record-equalling nine SPL titles in a row prompted criticism from fans, but his approach has been vindicated.

More recently, Celtic embarked on a renewed austerity drive. Big-money foreign signings are out, young prospects with a high re-sale value are in. What rebuilding manager Neil Lennon has done has largely been funded by the sale of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscowfor £9.5m. On the very day Rangers were in court with HMRC, Celtic announced pre-tax profits for the second half of 2011.

While a McCann-style white knight is unlikely to appear on Rangers’ horizon, Rangers remains an attractive investment opportunity — if an agreement can be reached with HMRC.Andy Kerr, president of the Rangers Supporters Assembly, has called for a fan takeover of the club, citing the Barcelona model as an inspiration. Elsewhere, former Rangers directorPaul Murray is hoping to put a consortium together. Any prospective owners will have to buy Whyte out and settle a tax bill that some reckon could rise to as much as £75m including penalties. If Rangers really are “too big to fail”, the other option — allowing Rangers to liquidate and reform as a new club yet retain their SPL status — calls to mind another phrase made famous by the credit crunch: moral hazard.

Excessive borrowing fuelled Rangers’ success over the last 25 years, with HMRC used as a de facto private bank. Between 1999 and 2002, for example, the club spent over £50m in transfer fees. Rewarding such reckless behaviour would set a worrying precedent at a time when many clubs are struggling to pay creditors, the taxman among them.

The other alternative is bankruptcy for Rangers. Whether the SPL decided to reinstate the ‘new Rangers’, or, much less likely, to relegate the club to the bottom of the football pyramid, it would be the end of the SPL as we now it, at least in the medium-term.

Tom English finds no crumbs of comfort in Rangers’ current travails: “There won’t be any revolution in the game just because this has happened, just a lot of people losing out.”

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent, February 19

Cillian Sheridan: 'They were probably expecting an unbelievable player, then I turned up'

Just before Christmas, Cillian Sheridan was invited to appear as a pundit on Sportscene, BBC Scotland’s flagship football show.

In studio, the on-loan St Johnstone striker’s analytical skills were more Garth Crooks than Alan Hansen — “I’m rubbish at talking about football,” he says candidly — but it was his sartorial choices that provoked most comment: Sheridan, on his BBC debut, appeared wearing a bright red yuletide pullover, complete with green Christmas trees.

As a consequence, for a brief moment, the Cavan man’s jumper was the hottest property in Scottish football. A tabloid even arranged a photo shoot in which the rangy striker, who was described as being “on trend for 2012”, modelled the finest Christmas knitwear.

Reclining on a wooden chair in a busy café on Woodlands Road, the bustling main artery connecting Glasgow city centre with the bohemian West End, Sheridan smiles as he recollects his first — and possibly last — visit to BBC Scotland: “I brought the jumper with me to the show. I asked (the producers), ‘Can I wear this?’ They said it was okay so I put it on.” The producers, you sense, were less accommodating when the former Celt’s phone rang twice live on air. “It was a shambles. I doubt they’ll ask me back again,” he laughs.

The Sportscene episode epitomises Cillian Sheridan: insouciant, irreverent and imminently likeable. As followers of his refreshingly honest, and often very funny, Twitter feed will testify, this is a man who sports a tattoo of a moustache on the index finger of his left hand and could seldom be accused of taking football, or life, too seriously. As he says himself, “I don’t get worked up about things, it’s not my style.”

In a week dominated by the dyspeptic transfer window — characterised, once again, by average players demanding exorbitant wage — Sheridan feels, in some respects, like the antithesis of the Sky Sports-era footballer. There are no rings on his fingers, he wears a few days’ worth of stubble across his prominent jaw line and speaks with a casual ease seldom evinced amid the media training and PR consultants that are part and parcel of the modern game. Sheridan’s is the relaxed attitude of a young man who practically fell into football. While many of his contemporaries in the current Ireland squad began their careers in the League of Ireland, the Bailieborough man was signed by Celtic as a schoolboy. Sheridan only took up soccer seriously at 16. That year he was also a Cavan minor, where his impressive performances in midfield led the Brisbane Lions Aussie Rules team to offer him a chance to move Down Under.

The financial rewards of football proved too great, however: after a spell at Dublin side Belvedere Boys and breaking into the Ireland under 17 set-up, Sheridan plumped for Celtic Park. But Gaelic football remains his true love: during the summer he is often to be found in the stand at Breffni Park watching Cavan in the Ulster championship. “I see the start and the end of the season. They’re normally out before I go back,” he quips.

Life at Celtic, at least initially, was good. Under former manager Gordon Strachan, he swiftly graduated to the senior side, making his Champions League debut as a substitute against Manchester United in 2008, aged just 18. Two weeks later, Sheridan started the return leg of the same clash. But when Strachan departed in 2009, to be replaced first byTony Mowbray and then Neil Lennon, his first-team options dried up. Neither manager ‘fancied’ the striker, who was farmed out in a succession of loan deals to Motherwell, Plymouth and St Johnstone. In similar situations, ego-driven young footballers are wont to grow restive, but not, it seems, Sheridan: “I was never bitter towards (Mowbray or Lennon). I never said ‘I should be playing’.”

Faced with silently rotting in the reserves at Celtic Park or a merry-go-round of frustrating six-month loan deals, Sheridan made a surprising decision: he joined Bulgarian club CSKA Sofia. It was a brave move that seemed to pay immediate dividends as Sheridan began life in Bulgaria by starting, and scoring, regularly. But when the manager was sacked after two months, the striker found himself out of favour and isolated far away from his friends and family. “When you’re not playing over there it’s hard,” he admits.

Self-deprecating, perhaps to a fault, Sheridan suggests CSKA may have had unrealistic expectations of the young Irish targetman when they signed him two summers ago. “I went over the day after starting against Argentina (in a 1-0 defeat at the Aviva in August 2010), so they were probably expecting an unbelievable player. Then I turned up.”

After the sojourn in Sofia, Sheridan feels at home back in Scotland. He lives near Glasgow University, and commutes to Perth, where St Johnstone are based. Under new managerSteve Lomas, the Saints have maintained their strong early-season form — they currently stand fifth in the SPL — with Sheridan, who has teamed up effectively with co-striker Fran Sandaza, chipping in with some important goals, including the equaliser in Sunday’s draw atHearts in the fifth round of the Scottish Cup.

Despite having three caps to his name, the lanky striker doesn’t talk up his chances of figuring in Giovanni Trapattoni’s plans for the European Championships. “Realistically I’d only (get into the squad) through injuries. And even then when fellas do pull out there are other fellas that are playing in the Premiership who weren’t in the first squad who will be ahead of me.” When it comes to football, Sheridan is nothing if not phlegmatic.

He might not be booking flights to Poland but his performances before Christmas led to paper talk of a move away from McDiarmid Park. Sheridan, who was injured when the transfer window opened, chose to repay St Johnstone’s faith, renewing his loan deal until the end of the season. It was an example of another trait rarely associated with footballers: loyalty.

Such fealty is even more remarkable given that CSKA Sofia — he is still contracted with the Bulgarian club until 2013 — routinely pay his wages over eight weeks late. “It’s a bit unusual alright. I’ll get two months’ wages and then nothing for two months,” Sheridan says in his soft Cavan drawl.

Wages, or more correctly their absence, has been a major issue in Scottish football this year: Edinburgh club Hearts have been sanctioned by the Scottish Premier League for consistent late payments to players, one of whom, Ryan Stevenson, went on a very public strike. Sheridan, in contrast, describes his ambiguous financial situation as simply “annoying”.

The hope now is that St Johnstone will prove a springboard for a permanent move — and a secure pay packet — perhaps elsewhere in the SPL or, his favoured destination, England. After six moves in less than four years, there’s a sense that the peripatetic striker would like to settle down, preferably somewhere a bit closer to Cavan than Eastern Europe.

Sheridan regularly returns home to visit friends and family. Both his parents are teachers in Bailieborough and, if it wasn’t for football, he would have probably followed in their footsteps. One aspect of the profession in particular still appeals: “Teachers have the best holidays you can get! We only get June off, but they get three months for summer as well as Christmas. Pretty nice.”

In the overexcited world of football, Cillian Sheridan is one player who definitely knows how to take it easy.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 12/02/2012.