The shocking verdict of 'not proven' (a legal definition separate from either guilty or not guilty which is unique to the Scottish legal system) that was reached by a jury at Edinburgh Sheriff Court this week on the assault that took place against Celtic FC manager, Neil Lennon, by John Wilson at Tynecastle Park, home of Hearts FC in Edinburgh, towards the end of last season, brings the Scottish legal system into disrepute. It also further illustrates the extent to which anti-Irish Catholic bigotry remains entrenched within a significant section of Scottish society.
The assault, which involved Wilson running onto the pitch and making a lunge at Lennon who was standing by the Celtic dugout, before being overpowered by stewards and members of Celtic's coaching staff, took place in front of 16,000 fans who were at the game, was broadcast live on television. Making the jury's verdict even more outrageous is the fact that Wilson admitted to making a lunge for Lennon and hitting him on the back of the head. He denied, however, that there was any sectarian or religious motive behind the attack.
The context in which this trial took place is the extraordinary events of last season to afflict both Scottish football and wider Scottish society. Explosive devices were sent through the mail to Neil Lennon, his lawyer and high profile Scottish QC, Paul McBride, and former Labour MSP, Trish Godman, all of whom share an affiliation or connection to Celtic Football Club, founded in 1888 to help feed Glasgow's destitute Irish Catholic immigrant population and which has maintained strong links to its Irish heritage ever since.
Religious bigotry, football and the West of Scotland have long been inextricably linked, constituting component parts of the region's culture and political terrain. For almost as long as they have existed the political turbulence and social divisions which have defined society in the North of Ireland have found an echo in the West of Scotland; though it has to be said not usually to the same deadly effect as last season.
Much of the population of the West of Scotland trace their roots and cultural heritage to Ireland, from whence waves of migrants have made the short journey across the Irish Sea to Scotland for centuries; the vast majority seeking sanctuary from starvation during the Irish Famine of the mid-19th century, or compelled to by economic necessity, persecution, or both.
In Scotland the hostility directed towards the Irish migrant population was made worse by the added ingredient of Protestant fundamentalism that traced its history back to the Scottish Reformation of the 16th century and Scotland's status as a redoubt of Presbyterianism thereafter. The role that was played by Presbyterian Scotch Planters (Scottish settler colonialists) in repressing the native Catholic population throughout Ulster during the 17th century, forcibly expelling them from their land and starving them from their homes, was also a source of continuing hostility, which has also fed into the West of Scotland's enduring sectarian culture.
Though many would assert that structural discrimination against Roman Catholics in Scotland no longer exists, recent sets of statistics have revealed that in areas such as crime and social exclusion Catholics fare worse than any other demographic. In January of this year the Scottish Prison Service released figures which showed that 30 percent of the nation's prison population are Catholics, nearly double the percentage of Catholics in the population as a whole.
Meanwhile, back in 2007 the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, led calls for a government investigation into the findings of a census which revealed that 19 percent of the country's Catholic population occupied 10 percent of the most deprived housing areas, compared to 14 percent of Muslims and 8 percent who described themselves as Church of Scotland. He also seized on figures which revealed that in 64 percent of cases of sectarian-motivated abuse or assault in Scotland the victims were Catholics. At the time the Cardinal's spokesman said:
"It is a matter of some concern that Catholics are disproportionately represented in Scotland's prison population and are more likely to occupy the poorest-quality housing. Wider research on these phenomena would be very helpful in attempting to ascertain what, if any, social trends underpin such disadvantage."
There is no doubt that anti-Irish Catholic bigotry continues to scar and blight Scottish society. Relations between the fans of Glasgow's Old Firm clubs (Celtic and Rangers FC ) have always been defined by religious and cultural differences, with songs reflecting those differences the norm throughout football grounds in Scotland whenever one of either team visits. When both teams play each other the hatred is palpable. But Hearts FC in Edinburgh have also a problem with sectarian chanting at their ground, as last season's assault on Celtic manager Neil Lennon illustrates.
Celtic fans would argue that Irish rebel songs are politically and not religiously motivated, and objectively in claiming this they are correct. Despite this, Celtic are regarded by wider Scottish society and the club's fans as an Irish Catholic institution, with songs celebrating the club's Irish identity incorrectly perceived as anti-Protestant.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon has been a special target of hatred on the part of proponents of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigots in Scotland. Since joining Celtic first as a player in 2000 and latterly as a coach and now manager he's been assaulted in the street, received numerous death threats, had bullets sent to him in the mail and now a letter bomb. He was also forced to stop playing for Northern Ireland after receiving a death threat from loyalist paramilitaries when he came out publicly with his support for the concept of united Ireland national football team. In Scotland he and his family now live under constant 24 hour protection and he daren't step out for a social event or evening without endangering his life.
It has become common currency in the West to point to the religious and ethnic intolerance that exists in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq as lamentable evidence of the regressive nature of those societies. However, the social disease of anti Irish Catholic bigotry in 21st century Scotland says more about the true state of Scottish society than a hundred tourist brochures.
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