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Will Scotland's Most Famous Soccer Rivalry Sway the Independence Referendum?

The animosity between fans of Glasgow's Rangers and Celtics soccer clubs is legendary, and their rivalry is historically linked to how the two sets of supporters feel about the UK.
September 17, 2014, 7:25pm

Photos by James Turner and Marcus Thompson

Glasgow’s Rangers and Celtic soccer clubs are the two biggest cultural entities in Scotland. More people attend Old Firm—as the teams are collectively known—matches than buy either of the two national broadsheet newspapers combined. Unless you've lived in Scotland’s central belt it is difficult to imagine the grip that the Old Firm has on many people’s lives. And of course, it’s a rivalry that is based, at least historically, on different attitudes toward the United Kingdom—a country that might not include Scotland by the end of this week. A whopping 300,000 Rangers fans travelled to Manchester for the 2006 UEFA Cup final, while 80,000 Celtic fans went to see their team in the same match in 2003—though to be fair that was all the way in Seville. It’s clear that Old Firm fans make up a sizeable voting bloc in a referendum that will be decided by fewer than 5 million voters.

There remains a widespread assumption that Rangers supporters are mostly Unionists who love nothing more than singing "Rule, Britannia!" and brandishing flags with the Queen’s image. They have an accordion band that took part in the Orange March on Saturday and they sing songs that originated from ditties about killing Catholics.

Celtic supporters on the other hand are routinely seen as Irish republican sympathizers who would rather punch themselves than shake the Queen's hand. No one embodies this ideology more than the Green Brigade, a group of passionate fans known for their militant anti-imperialist stance. In 2010, Celtic issued an apology after the group unveiled a series of banners during a match against Aberdeen because they were angry that a remembrance poppy had been put on the Celtic kit. The message in question—“Your [the British Army’s] deeds would shame all the devils in Hell. Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No bloodstained poppy on our Hoops”—could not have been a clearer rejection of British patriotism.

On the Friday before the referendum, Rangers were in the Fife coastal town of Kirkcaldy to play Raith Rovers. Since they were demoted to the Third Division as a result of their liquidation in 2012, Rangers have been climbing back up the Scottish soccer ladder and are now one promotion away from regaining their top-flight status.

Tommy, a 57-year-old life-long fan from the Rangers stronghold of Larkhall in South Lanarkshire, insisted that voting no to independence was a common-sense decision. “I’ve too much to lose,” he said. “I’m approaching pension age, and the SNP [Scottish National Party] politicians have no answers to anything. I’m thinking of my grandchildren’s future. You can’t take a chance. Scotland went cap in hand to England in 1707 after the Darien Scheme failed and I feel the same thing could happen again.”

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For some fans, perhaps their own club’s perilous financial state serves as a warning of the dire economic situation envisioned by opponents of independence if the yes campaign wins. That said, the parallel works for the yes campaign, too, with Rangers blogger Ronnie Brown recently comparing calls for independence from Westminster to the desire for fan ownership of the club. “What’s not up for debate is that Rangers fans and the Scottish population are being short-changed, and both need to be run by the people who care most about them,” he wrote.

Lorraine and Ken Rutherford 

Lorraine and Ken Rutherford estimated that 80 percent of Rangers fans would vote no. “I don’t think it’s about a referendum; it’s about a separation from England,” explained Ken. “To me, it’s anti-English more so than anything else.”

I asked Alasdair McKillop, a writer and cofounder of the Rangers Standard fan website, if the club’s reputation as staunch supporters of the British state was still accurate. “Too many people cling to a stereotyped impression of Rangers fans,” he said. “Not all Rangers fans are Unionists and you don’t have to be a Unionist to be a Rangers fan.

“I think the most substantial difference in terms of the Rangers fans’ views of the Union and the British state is that 20 years ago the main concern would have been about Northern Ireland’s relationship with them. Rangers fan culture was influenced, to a certain extent, by expressions of support for Ulster Unionists during the Troubles—but now it is Scotland’s place in the Union that looks vulnerable, arguably more vulnerable that Northern Ireland’s ever was.”

The next day I was in the East End of Glasgow to speak to Celtic fans ahead of their home match against Aberdeen. Outside Celtic Park there were around two dozen fans of varying ages handing out flyers promoting a yes vote; something I had seen no evidence of in Kirkcaldy. Members of the Radical Independence campaign have noted that Celtic supporters’ discomfort with British identity has made Celtic Park fertile ground for them.

Kevin Stevenson

“Have you been to Westminster?” asked Kevin Stevenson. “When you watch them all debating, do they debate anything about Scotland? At 10 PM when there’s no one there. That was a big factor for me. We should take our chance, because we will only get one shot at it. Seven hundred years ago William Wallace fought and died. Now we get a vote.”

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It’s worth pointing out that Celtic fans are not known as fans of the SNP. Many have been pissed off by the Offence Behaviour and Threatening Communications Act, a highly controversial piece of legislation that was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2011 with the aim of stamping out sectarian abuse at soccer matches.

I asked journalist and broadcaster Angela Haggerty, who has written extensively on the Old Firm and Irish identity in Scotland, if the SNP's Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill had cost the yes campaign support among Celtic fans. “The act is seen by many as criminalization not only of football fans but of political football fans,” she said. “For Celtic fans in particular, concerns have been raised—and with merit—that expressing an Irish Republican identity can now be classed as a crime in Scotland. There have been concerns that the legislation is a threat to freedom and specifically to minority ethnic groups, such as Irish, which is a huge part of Celtic's history.”

Mel Webb

Mel Webb explained why she was hopeful a majority of Celtic fans would vote yes. “You have the Irish roots of the club, obviously, and most Celtic fans are for an independent Ireland,” she said. “I think most have the same beliefs when it comes to Scotland as well.’

Ryan McFadden, a writer who works in the charitable sector, was dismissive of some of the sectarian motivations for voting yes. “There is an element in the Celtic support that view independence as a protest against the British Empire, or the British state for ills against the Irish almost 100 years ago,” he said. “This is embarrassingly irrelevant, whether you're minded to be yes or no.”

Nevertheless, stalking certain Facebook groups such as "Celts for Independence" and "Gers Fans Against Separation," it’s still possible to come across the occasional slurs by Ranger fans about Celtic fans being “Republican scum,” or this one from a Celtic fan: “once we r indepependent they ain't got a queens arse to kiss fucking pricks fuck off n die the lot ae yies.”

It seems that while a lot of Old Firm fans are keen to dismiss their sectarian relationship as irrelevant to the independence debate and will vote on pragmatic grounds, the old rivalry will hold sway over a fair few voters.

Follow Chris McCall on Twitter.