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Soldiers, sashes and shamrocks: Football and social identity in Scotland and Northern Ireland

  Daniel Burdsey and Robert Chappell

Brunel University, UK


This article demonstrates the nexus between social identity and football in the context of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Drawing on theories of social identity, it highlights the manner in which supporting particular football clubs in these nations operates alongside other social processes to constitute individuals’ social identities. This article argues that in many cases, one’s affiliation with a particular club represents the combination of number of specific social, political and religious attributes and that football remains one of the few public arenas in which the exhibition and articulation of these sentiments is permitted.   

1. Introduction

1.1       The sociological study of football in Scotland and Northern Ireland is by no means a new phenomenon. However, the vast majority of studies consider each nation in isolation and rarely have the two been included in a comparative account. This paper seeks to overcome this by analysing the manner in which relations between Protestants and Catholics are experienced and articulated with regard to football in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Both nations are underpinned by a hegemonic Protestant culture and football acts as an arena for Catholic challenges to, and Protestant preservation, of this dominance (Bradley, 1998; Bairner & Darby, 1999). However, as this paper demonstrates, it is necessary to recognise that this power balance is maintained/challenged in a variety of similar and contrasting ways, most notably with regard to the greater use of violence in the Northern Irish context. Studies of religious, ethnic, political, regional and national sporting antagonisms have undergone a resurgence in the sociology of sport (e.g. Armstrong & Giulianotti, 2001) and, as sectarian violence – both on and off the field of play – in Northern Irish and Scottish football shows little sign of abating, a contemporary comparative analysis remains an important and significant field of enquiry. In this context, footballing allegiance plays a significant part in the respective social identities for Protestants and Catholics in these countries. By combining an exposition of social identity theory together with statistical demographic data, this paper will demonstrate how the team that an individual supports complements other aspects of his or her social identity.

1.2       Before focusing explicitly on Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is helpful to contextualise these settings by providing a brief overview of the role of football in the construction and articulation of social identity in other nations. Since its humble beginnings as a rural British folk game, football has developed into a sport that is almost unrecognisable in comparison to its ancestral form. However, one important parallel can be drawn between the different stages of the game’s development, i.e. the role of football in the expression of social identity. From the intense regional rivalry that characterised medieval ball games to the national, religious, ethnic and political antagonisms that are present in modern day football, one can highlight the continued role of football in the processes of identity construction and maintenance. Whilst it is acknowledged that for some people (both players and spectators) sporting competition is sought purely for its intrinsic value, it is equally important to recognise that for many others, sport, and in particular football, plays a far more significant role in their lives (Armstrong & Giulianotti, 1997; 1999). As Bradley (1995b) states,

The psychological satisfaction that people gain from “football” victories, related media coverage, social events, wearing the respective team colours and identifying with the emblems and symbols, which represent hundreds of years of history as well as everyday realities, is immense (p. 96)

Similarly Coelho (1998) notes that “it is fascinating, even though sometimes frightening, how a football team gains vast and complex social signification and symbolism which overtake the simple outcome of a sporting competition” (p.159). Hognestad (1997), on the other hand, suggests that passionate football support parallels Geertz’s (1972) notion of deep play in that “symbolic pride is tied to support and football is therefore frequently made into ‘a matter of honour’” (p.194).

1.3       MacClancy (1996b) states that “sports…are vehicles of identity, providing people with a sense of difference and a way of classifying themselves and others, whether latitudinally or hierarchically” (p. 2). More specifically, Bromberger (1993) argues that “ultimately [a football match] offers an expressive support for the affirmation of collective identity and local, regional and national antagonisms” (p. 91). Both of these statements succinctly express the double-sided nature of social identity. Supporting a particular football team not only facilitates a feeling of shared identity with fellow supporters, it also acts as a means of differentiating oneself from other groups (Jenkins, 1996). In many cases identification with a particular team indicates what or who one is, and equally importantly, what or who they are not. As Bairner and Shirlow (1999, p. 162) note in their analysis of football in Northern Ireland, “supporting particular soccer teams allows these fans to express their opposition to rival identities whilst celebrating their own”.

1.4       In the vast majority of football-playing countries, the national side makes a considerable contribution to the construction and maintenance of national identities. For example, football played an important part in the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen into the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (Stevenson & Alaug, 1999); the structure of football has assisted in the break down of divisions between the French and Flemish populations in Belgium (Vanreusel, Renson & Tollenneer, 1999); and the multi-ethnic composition of France’s 1998 World Cup winning side has assisted in the promotion of racial tolerance and integration in a nation in which the right-wing influence of Jean-Marie Le Pen remains strong (Marks, 1999). In other states, the relationship between football and national identity is somewhat more contested. In Turkey football acts not only as a symbol of modernity and inclusion within Europe, but paradoxically, it also acts as a means of cultural differentiation from the Western world (Kozanoglu, 1999).

1.5       Conversely, in both Italy and Spain, strong regional identification and inter-club club conflict amongst supporters (particularly amongst Ultra groups) mean that the Azzurri and Seleccion (respective national teams) have proved relatively ineffective vehicles for the expression of nationalist sentiments (De Biasi & Lanfranchi, 1997; Duke & Crolley, 1996). However, in Spain, football acts as a vehicle for nationalism in the historic nationalities, e.g. Catalonia, Basque Country (MacClancy, 1996a). Similar examples can be found with minority groups in most other states. For example, al-Wihdat are seen as a symbol of Palestinian nationalism in Jordan (Tuastad, 1997); Hapoel Taibeh are seen to represent Israel’s Arab population (Carmeli & Bar, 1999); and various clubs in Australia remain outlets for nationalist sentiments for European migrants (Hughson, 1997; Hallinan & Krotee, 1993; Vamplew, 1994).

1.6       It is thus evident that throughout the world, there are a number of teams that  operate as “anchors of meaning’ via their role as vehicles through which individuals and groups can strengthen their attachment and identification with a particular community” (Jarvie & Maguire, 1994, p. 152). Within most societies there are a variety of means by which social identity can be expressed, yet, for many (particularly minority) groups, football can be the sole or, at least the primary, outlet for such sentiments. This is certainly the case within the two nations focused upon in this paper – Scotland and Northern Ireland. The aim of this paper is to examine the manner in which football is used as a forum for the expression of social identity within these contexts. Human interaction in both countries is characterised to some extent by a similar, yet also distinctive, pattern of social relations, and thus social identities in these societies are multifaceted and constructed from a relatively specific combination of ethnic, religious and political attributes (Jarman, 1997). In order to demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between football and social identity in these countries, this paper will firstly provide an exposition of theories of social identity and an analysis of the construction of ‘established-outsider’ relations and notions of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. The remainder of the paper will then show how social identities are specifically constructed and articulated within the societies under focus and how supporters of specific football clubs in these nations operate as ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1991) through their collective social, political and religious identifications. By focusing on the antagonisms between Protestant and Catholic clubs in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the paper will also highlight how the social, religious and political identities of the followers of these respective clubs are both underpinned by and, in turn also influence, the wider pattern of relations between the two groups in these nations.

2. Social identity and the construction of imagined communities

2.1       The most substantial contributions to the study of identity have grown out developments of Social Identity Theory, which was pioneered by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s (Abrams & Hogg, 1990). Tajfel defines social identity as “the individual’s knowledge that he/she belongs to certain social groups together with some emotional and value significance to him/her of the group membership” (Abrams & Hogg, 1990, p. 2). The theory posits that a self-inclusive social category of some form, for example, a football team or religious affiliation, furnishes a category-congruent self-definition that forms part of the self-concept. The individual perceives this category as a social identity that not only describes, but also prescribes their attributes as part of that group. The theory invokes the operation of two underlying processes: categorisation and self-enhancement. The former elucidates group boundaries by manufacturing group normative and stereotypical actions and perceptions, and allocates individuals to the contextually relevant group. By assisting the categorisation process, the latter ensures that in-group stereotypes and norms favour, in the main part, that group (Hogg, 1996).

2.2       Drawing upon the work of (among others) Barth, Goffman and Mead, Jenkins argues that social identity represents our understanding of who we and other people are, and therefore, also their understanding of themselves and others (including us). As Mead suggests, an individual cannot see him/herself without seeing themselves as others see them (Hogg, 1996). Jenkins argues that identity is never unilateral, in that the plain assertion of an identity is not sufficient; it must be validated by the others within any interaction (Hogg, 1996). Similarly, Barth proposes that it is not sufficient simply to express elements of identity; instead the identity must be met with the acceptance of significant others before it can be described as taken on (Hogg, 1996). However, it is also important to recognise that the process of being identified by others, i.e. named, may effect a self-identification (MacDonald, 1993). Jenkins (1996) thus refers to the importance of what Goffman labels the presentation of self in everyday life, which relates to the fact that it is not always possible to make sure that the signals we emit during interaction are received or interpreted in the intended manner. Thus he highlights the role of Goffman’s impression management strategies which he argues “dramatise the interface between self-image and public-image” (Jenkins, 1996, p. 22).

2.3       An individual’s identity is multi-faceted and thus the structure and content of this paper follow more what Archetti (1996) identifies as an anthropological, as opposed to an ‘essentialist’ approach. Whereas, in terms of the latter, identity is an attribute that an individual or group has in or of itself and is subject to growth, decline, continuity and change, the former is relativist, viewing identity as both positional and strategic. In other words, an individual or group does not have one identity, but a (potentially) large number. This approach not only conforms with the aforementioned social identity theory, but it also is more relevant to the context of this paper, for, as has been argued throughout, football fandom forms just one of a multiplicity of elements in an individual’s overall identity. Shore (1993) suggests that the levels of an individual’s identity can be viewed as concentric rings, with each level defining a separate identity. Each level is also defined by specific boundary markers, which may be visible symbols, e.g. football support or non-visual, e.g. accent.

2.4       A key contribution to the debate on identity has been Anderson’s (1991) seminal work on nationalism. He refers to nations as imagined communities, a concept that can equally be applied to support of a particular football team. As Cohen (1989) argues, the term community implies that members of a group possess common features that significantly distinguish them from members of other groups. Definitions of community can be determined by a variety of criteria: members may be required to possess particular relevant ethnic, social, religious, political or national characteristics. Football supporters can thus be similarly conceived of as comprising distinct communities that revolve around identification with a particular club. As Sugden and Tomlinson (1994, p. 3) highlight, “sport in many cases informs and refuels the popular memory of communities, and offers a collective source of identification and community expression for those who follow teams and individuals”.

2.5       Central to Anderson’s (1991) argument is the notion that although an individual may share elements of their identity with members of a particular social grouping, it is highly likely that he/she will have had no direct personal contact with the vast majority of these people. This is why the community is perceived as inherently imagined. It is inconceivable for supporters of a particular club to be aware of the existence of all others who share this element of their social identity, yet for the majority of people this is irrelevant. For them, the knowledge that they form part of the vast interdependency networks that constitute membership of a social group is sufficient to procure feelings of pride and involvement, despite the absence of close personal relationships with other people within this group (Abrams & Hogg, 1990).

2.6       The nature of this paper means that the emphasis is on collective rather than individual identity. Jenkins (1996) differentiates between the two, proposing that the latter emphasises difference, whilst the former similarity. It is certainly the case that a fundamental aspect of supporting a particular football team is the feeling of shared identity with similar supporters, yet it must also be acknowledged that this provides a means by which members of the group celebrate their difference. Thus an intended consequence of the construction of group boundaries is the process of inclusion and exclusion, i.e. the designation of in-groups and out-groups (Eisenstadt & Giesen, 1995) or the establishment of the Other. Jenkins argues that a consequence of defining the Other is the imposition of negative and putative characteristics on a Collective Other, whose politics, culture and lifestyle must be resisted and repelled (Bairner & Shirlow, 1999). Elias (in Mennell, 1992) refers to this using the twin terms group charisma and group disgrace. The creation of the former by the dominant group is inseparable from the imposition on and internalisation of the latter by the minority group.

2.7       As Finn (1991) correctly identifies, a fundamental component of all human relationships is the balance of power, and this is inextricably linked to the formation of social identities. Basically, the distribution of power within a given figuration necessitates that the perceptions and actions of the majority social grouping considerably influence the establishment of identity for the minority groups within a given society. As Elias (in Mennell, 1992) argues, the ability of one social group to attach a lasting label of human inferiority onto another group is a consequence of the specific figuration formed by the two groups with one another. Although the minority group can attempt to resist or challenge the hegemony of the dominant group, their acceptance within a given society is subject to the actions and attitudes of the majority group. When the identities of a minority group are met with approval from the majority, certain elements are accepted under the premise that they have added a degree of cultural diversity to the community. Conversely, when the majority group exhibit prejudice towards the minority, the latter are likely be subject to discrimination, racism and, particularly in the context of this paper, sectarianism. As Elias and Scotson (1965, p. 95) state in their study of established-outsider relations,

By and large…the more secure the members of a group feel in their own superiority and their pride, the less great is the distortion, the gap between image and reality, likely to be; and the more threatened and insecure they feel, the more likely it is that internal pressure, and as part of it, internal competition, will drive common beliefs towards extremes of illusion and doctrinaire rigidity.

However, as MacDonald (1993) reminds us, one should not assume that the identities of majority groups are automatically unambiguous, secure or morally dominant either.

2.8       The processes involved in the differentiation of people from varying ethnic backgrounds can (to some extent) be aided by the presence of physical characteristics, such as skin colour. The visual identification of members of different religious or political affiliations, on the other hand, is a far more complicated task. As Cecil (1993, p. 150) states, “for an individual who does not reside in Northern Ireland, distinguishing Protestants and Catholics from a population that is relatively homogenous, both visually and linguistically, is difficult”. However, she argues that in Northern Ireland, there is a widespread perception that an individual’s religious (and political) identity can be accurately ascertained, irrespective of whether or not this person wishes it to be known.

2.9       Cecil (1993) draws on Burton’s concept of telling to argue that, even through the briefest of interactions, a citizen of Northern Ireland can “tell” the affiliations of a fellow resident. Burton (in Cecil, 1993, p. 151) argues that this concept is “based on the social significance attached to name, face and dress, area of residence, school attended and possibly phonetic use, colour and symbolism”. He adds that “telling is not an undisputed fact, but, as an ideological representation, is a mixture of myth and reality” (p. 151). As Cecil remarks, it assists in the identification and maintenance of boundaries, which are particularly important in a society in which the preservation of such means of demarcation is seen as necessary.

2.10     Kozanoglu (1999, p. 125) argues that “the important point is that ‘others’ are created and exist to be discriminated against” and, as previously outlined, discrimination is often a consequence of the construction of an in-group / out-group consciousness. However, a further important aspect of telling is that it provides individuals with the knowledge necessary to behave appropriately in social interaction in a divided society such as Northern Ireland (Cecil, 1993). Similar processes are, according to Bradley (1995a), also present in west central Scotland. In fact one could argue that one’s knowledge of their and others’ identities are paramount for meaningful social interaction of any form, or in any society, to take place. As Finn and Giulianotti (1998) note, the existing pattern of social relations between groups possessing contrasting identities is extremely influential on the social dynamics of any further exchange.

3. ‘No Surrender’ and ‘The Soldier’s Song’: Football and the expression of social identity in Scotland

3.1       This paper will now consider the role that football plays in the expression of social identity in Scotland and Northern Ireland. By concentrating predominantly on Celtic and Rangers – the clubs with the strongest politico-religious traditions in Scotland – this section will examine the way in which football is used for the maintenance and promotion of identity, by focusing upon those elements comprising the identities of supporters of these clubs; and the specific manner in which both supporters and club personnel express these identities.

3.2       The relationship between Scotland’s two most successful clubs is characterised not only by their fierce battle for dominance in the domestic game, but also by the conflicting affiliations of the teams and their supporters (Murray, 1984; 1998). Rangers are regarded as exhibiting a Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist identity, whereas Celtic are seen as symbols of Catholicism, Irish nationalism and Republicanism. Whilst these perceptions are strongly substantiated, it is important to recognise that to suggest that all supporters identify with all (or indeed any) of these affiliations would represent a considerable generalisation. As Boyle (1994, p. 91) states, “while I believe significant political differences do exist between the majority of supporters of Celtic and Rangers, related to religious and historical factors, there can be no simplistic linkage between symbolic sporting displays of allegiance and collective political orientation”. Notwithstanding this, evidence suggests that distinct patterns can be drawn regarding the identities of football supporters in Scotland.

3.3       It is important to recognise that, for different people, association with a particular team is likely to represent differing levels of significance in terms of the composition of their overall identity. Whereas one individual may perceive that his/her most prominent characteristic is ‘Celtic supporter’, for another this may be ranked lower, in terms of perceived importance, than their role as a ‘citizen of Glasgow’. For example, in his analysis of Celtic supporters, Boyle (1994, p. 93) highlights that “the club is just one part of a wider cultural network that includes religion, education and politics”. As Shore (1993) points out, as an individual undertakes various roles in life, different aspects of their identity will become prominent depending on the position of that individual in relation to others. For example, an individual might define themselves in different contexts, for example, as Orangeman or Unionist, and “each apparently minor shift from one label to another in fact conveys messages of considerable magnitude and political complexity” (Shore, 1993, p. 36). An individual’s identity fluctuates depending on the context and is relative to the position of the observer. The construction and maintenance of social identity are thus dynamic processes, while “individual identities are not fixed, but are continually being constituted and reconstituted” (Boyle 1994, p. 77). As Hall (1990, p. 222) notes, “we should think…of identity as a “production”, which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation”.

3.4       Similarly, it is also necessary to recognise that whilst supporters of a particular club may perceive themselves to be sharing a common identity, it is likely that in reality they will differ, both in terms of which aspects of “the club” they identify with and their interpretation of what “the club” represents. For example, Boyle (1994, p. 74) emphasises “the division that can exist between the club as a concrete institution and as an idea which is largely personified or existent through its supporters”. However, the fundamental point to be made is that, irrespective of the degree to which it does so, support of a football club does act as a vehicle through which the other elements of an individual’s identity can be affirmed and articulated.

3.5       Demarcators of Otherness depend on the specific society, yet in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, they are predominantly related to religious affiliation (Devine, 1991). The influence of Catholicism which was so prominent in the establishment of Celtic is still evident amongst its supporters, with 93% belonging to the faith. Conversely, 73% of Rangers supporters are Church of Scotland adherents, whilst none are Catholics (Bradley, 1995a). However, these affiliations do not correspond directly with religious attendance. For example, whereas 61% of Celtic fans go to church at least once a week (a higher percentage of church-attending Catholics than the Catholic population of Scotland in general), only 5% of Rangers supporters regularly attend. Bradley (1995a, p. 62) thus argues that for many Rangers fans Protestantism is not defined by regular church attendance and that their identity is “partly, and in a number of instances strongly if not solely, defined in relation to Catholics”.

3.6       Approximately three out of five Celtic supporters perceive themselves to be of Irish ethnicity, whilst only one-third state that they are Scottish. Boyle (1994) states that this identification with “Irishness” is most pronounced amongst younger Celtic supporters (i.e. under 25s), with some older supporters claiming that these young fans are ‘more Irish’ than Celtic fans have ever been. The majority of supporters of other clubs regard themselves as having a Scottish background, although 16% of Rangers fans claim a British heritage (Bradley, 1995a). These sentiments are reflected in patterns of football support, in that 54% of Celtic fans never watch the Scottish national team, and for those that follow another international team, 52% state that this is the Republic of Ireland. As Bradley (1995a, p. 47) suggests, it appears that support for the Republic is “an adjunct of the ‘Celtic culture’ itself”[1].

3.7       The commitment of many Rangers supporters to the British Union is highlighted by fact that nearly three-quarters believe that Northern Ireland should remain part of Britain. On the other hand, nearly four out of five Celtic supporters favour Irish reunification which, according to Bradley (1995a, p. 47), suggests “a strong politico-cultural connection between Celtic fans and Ireland”. Similarly nearly two-thirds of Rangers supporters strongly opposed a withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland, whilst approximately the same figure of Celtic fans strongly supported a withdrawal.

3.8       In terms of political allegiances, some distinct patterns are evident. The Conservative Party (the most Unionist of the British parties) are most popular amongst Rangers supporters, with approximately one third of fans voting for them. The strong historical link between Catholicism and the Labour Party in the west of Scotland is highlighted by the high percentage (85%) of Celtic supporters voting Labour. Interestingly, over one-third of Aberdeen and Dundee United fans vote SNP, whilst the party were supported by only 4% of Celtic fans (Bradley, 1995a). As Boyle (1994) identifies, these allegiances are reinforced by the symbols exhibited by supporters at matches. Rangers supporters often display the Union Jack, whilst in the late 1980s/early 1990s there was tendency for supporters of Aberdeen and Dundee United to emphasise their Scottish identities by replacing Union Jacks with the Scottish Saltire / SNP symbols (Bradley 1995a). Bryce (in Bradley, 1995a, p. 93) states that “all Orangemen are not Rangers supporters, and all Rangers supporters are not Orangemen”, yet Bradley (1995a) highlights that the majority of Orange Lodge members in Scotland support Rangers. Conversely, Celtic are a source of identification for 96% of the members of Irish Republican political solidarity movements, e.g. Republican Band Alliance and Irish cultural bodies, e.g. Gaelic League.

3.9       The respective Irish nationalist and Scottish Protestant sympathies of Celtic and Rangers supporters are highlighted by their identification with certain political, cultural and religious symbols. Supporters of all Scottish clubs except Celtic identify with The Thistle, The Bagpipes, Scottish folk group The Corries[2] and Robert Burns. Although John Knox[3] is not generally as popular as could be expected (possibly due to a lack of religious practice or knowledge amongst supporters) the proportion of Rangers fans identifying with him is still over 50% (Bradley, 1995a). This data is supported by Gallagher (in Boyle, 1994, p. 85) who states that “working class Catholics in particular find it difficult to relate to the symbols of Scottish nationhood”. Over 50% of Celtic supporters identify with The Shamrock, Irish folk-group the Wolfe Tones and St. Patrick, whilst nearly one quarter identify with Padraic Pearse[4]. Each of the symbols associated with Celtic were a source of identification for less than ten supporters of all other clubs put together (Bradley, 1995a). As Bradley (1995a, p. 137) states “the historical image of Celtic Football Club as a fundamental part of the Catholic (and Irish) mind-set, and as their representatives in the field of sport and popular endeavour, is clearly shown to be relatively unchanged today”. However, he adds that “by emerging as the major focus for much Irish and Catholic secular activity, Celtic have also contributed to the demise of other more intrinsically Irish cultural activities” (p. 168).

3.10     The most effective way for many football supporters to articulate the elements of their identity is through their behaviour at a match. This is due to the fact that not only are similar individuals brought together in the same setting, but the Other (i.e. opposition supporters) are also present in close proximity. This provides both groups of supporters with a relatively safe environment in which they can express elements of their identity and behave in a manner that may not be socially acceptable elsewhere. As Bradley (1994, p. 23) states, “for Rangers and Celtic fans in particular, games are often viewed as opportunities for para-political expression. Rivalry between the fans of both clubs corresponds in a sense to the much larger religious and colonial rivalries that are centuries old” .

3.11     For example, popular songs amongst Rangers supporters include Orange Order anthems such as ‘The Billy Boys’[5] and ‘The Sash My Father Wore’. As Walker (1991, p. 63) identifies “the tribal folk memory still counts for something, and Orange songs and banners and slogans spell out the claim to an invisible bond between Scotland and Northern Ireland for those who desire, or think it important, to hear it”. ‘God save the Queen’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ are also commonly sung, the latter of which, according to Bradley (1998), probably became common during the Falklands conflict, a period during which anti-British/pro-Argentinean sentiments were also to be heard at Celtic Park. Furthermore, Rangers casuals[6] are entitled Her Majesty’s Service (Allan, 1989; Giulianotti, 1993). Conversely Celtic supporters are known to sing Irish “rebel” songs such as ‘The Ballad of Billy Reid’[7], together with chants referring to the political situation in Northern Ireland (e.g. ‘Get the Brits, Get the Brits, Get the Brits out now’ and ‘Ooh Aah, Up the Ra’ [IRA]) and references to IRA icon and hunger-striker Bobby Sands (Kuper, 1995). As Bradley (1998, p. 209) identifies, “such songs are intrinsic to the nature and identities of both clubs and their respective supporters, as well as to many others in the wider society”. Newspapers such as The Red Hand (Loyalist) and The Captive Voice (Republican) have also traditionally sold well at Ibrox and Celtic Park respectively, whilst members of paramilitary organisations have often publicly sported Celtic and Rangers jerseys to emphasise their allegiances to their respective causes (Bradley, 1998). However, it is important to understand that some supporters neither understand nor agree with the sentiments they are expressing or do not fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. As one Rangers supporter remarked

I personally don’t think that songs celebrating the Battle of the Boyne or the Siege of Derry have got much to do with football but don’t see how they could possibly be looked upon as being offensive by anyone apart from social workers, IRA sympathisers or anti-Protestant bigots (The Editor, 1991, p.1).

3.12     After the IRA bomb at Enniskillen in 1987 the Glasgow Herald noted “the tacit support for the IRA that you can read off virtually any wall in Glasgow and which you can hear, chanted from the terraces of Celtic Park, or wherever Celtic players take the field” (Bradley, 1994, p. 13). The following year the Sunday Mirror claimed that during the Scottish Cup Final, “Celtic supporters waved tricolour flags and sang choruses of Irish rebel songs, and there were chants of anti-British slogans from sections of the crowd”[8] (Bradley, 1995a, p. 41). In 1996 a “Provos on Tour” flag was displayed by Celtic fans in Hamburg (Murray, 1998), whilst the Celtic fanzine Tiocfaidh Ar La is explicitly pro-IRA[9] (Moorhouse, 1994). Such events have led contributors to Rangers fanzine Follow Follow to regularly refer to Celtic as “the athletic wing of the IRA” (Murray, 1998, p. 147).

3.13     A consequence of Celtic’s Irish-Catholic identity is that a strong anti-Irish/Catholic dimension has become evident amongst the supporters of a number of other Scottish clubs (Bradley, 1994). For example, in 1988 Motherwell supporters chanted “SAS 1, 2, 3/bang, bang, bang…” during a match against Celtic, in reference to the three IRA members who had recently been killed by the SAS in Gibraltar (Bradley, 1995a). A significant number of Rangers, Hearts and Motherwell supporters have also been prone to make Nazi salutes during matches against Celtic, for the gesture has “come to represent a particular manifestation of Britishness (which often aligns itself with Scottish identity), which views an important feature of British national identity as being against Catholicism and demonstrations of Irishness in Scotland” (Bradley, 1998, p. 206)[10].

3.14     One can draw parallels here with Italy, where according to De Biasi, “symbols of political extremism and parapolitical slogans have filtered into the culture of the curva[11] fans, and have been adapted (or ‘recodified’)”, a notion that Goffman refers to as “reframing” or “keying” (De Biasi, 1996, p. 119). However, it is important to locate such behaviour within a wider context. Since the first Irish settlers arrived in Scotland in the nineteenth century, Irish-Scots have been subject to pressure to privatise aspects of their identity and to some extent an anti-Irish hysteria is still evident today (Bradley 1995a). Irish people are still subject to considerable stereotyping, whereas there is a strong perceived association between Ireland and violence, a notion that operates interdependently with the sensationalist media reporting of Republican paramilitary activities. For example, Finn (1991, p. 394) states that “Ireland and things Irish still induce a strong, almost visceral anti-Irish sentiment in many Scots and a desire that Irish associations be “eliminated’”, whilst those who support the nationalist cause are marginalised and demonised in Scottish society.

3.15     An important influence on the maintenance of the respective identities of Celtic and Rangers has been the alleged sectarian recruitment policy employed by the latter. Whilst Celtic’s most successful manager, Jock Stein, was a Protestant and the club have often fielded Protestant players (e.g. Danny McGrain, Kenny Dalglish), Rangers have always had an unofficial/ undeclared “no Catholic” policy. Journalist Ian Archer argues that “Rangers were pursuing a sectarian employment policy. You did not play for Rangers unless you were a Protestant. Now that was a fact” (BBC TV, 1999a). Indeed it was a policy that appeared to operate throughout the whole club. For example, in 1973, with David Hope[12] set to be appointed as new chairman, the board suddenly reversed its decision. Despite official confirmation, it was believed to be due to the fact that Hope had, forty-three years previously, married a Catholic which, according to journalist Jack Webster was “a situation regarded as untenable by a section of those who follow the long blue trail to Ibrox” (Finn, 1994, p. 100).

3.16     The club’s policy had been defended by Rangers Director Matt Taylor who, in 1967, stated that, “it is part of our tradition. We were founded in 1873 as a Presbyterian Boys’ club. To change now would lose us considerable support” (Kuper 1995, p. 206). This “tradition” remained relatively unquestioned until the 1970s when, despite their denials, the club was subjected to stringent criticism regarding its sectarian practices, particularly from the Church[13] (Murray, 1984). The implications were wide ranging for, as Walker (1990, p. 149) highlights, “for those more fervid in their Protestant loyalties, it seemed that it was the Protestants in Scotland – through such campaigns of criticism against Rangers – who were being discriminated against”.

3.17     In July 1989 Rangers signed Maurice Johnston (known as ‘MoJo’) who, although not the first Catholic to play for Rangers[14], was Glasgow-born[15] and had previously played for Celtic. As former Rangers player Derek Johnstone remarks, “if you’d have said to any Rangers fan ‘who’s the worst Catholic you’d want to sign?’, it would be Maurice Johnston” (BBC TV, 1999a). It has been suggested that the rationale behind the transfer was that it would remove any inhibitions of clubs in Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain regarding the admittance of a perceived anti-Catholic institution into a future European League (Murray, 1998). Pressure is also believed to have come from the Scottish Football Association who were planning to hold Scottish internationals at Ibrox during the redevelopment of Hampden Park (Bradley, 1994).

3.18     The signing was denounced by supporters of both Celtic and Rangers. The Shankill (Belfast) branch of the Rangers Supporters’ Club folded in protest (Kuper, 1995), whilst graffiti in Glasgow drew parallels with paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland (BBC TV, 1999a):


However, despite claims to the contrary, only approximately 30 Rangers fans returned their season tickets (Murray, 1998). As one Rangers supporter commented, the signing did not change anything as “Rangers as a club have never done anything publicly to encourage Protestantism or Unionism. The club has remained a Protestant one because the supporters wanted it. No one else” (‘Follow, Follow’, 1991, p. 1). Notwithstanding this, within the last decade a desire to compete with Europe’s most successful clubs has seen Rangers adopt a more global recruitment policy. The club have signed players of a wide variety of nationalities, some of which have, inevitably, been Catholic such as Italians Marco Negri, Sergio Porrini, Rino Gattuso and Lorenzo Amoruso, German Jorg Albertz and Frenchman Basile Boli.

3.19     Aside from their selection policies, personnel at both clubs have played a major part in the promotion of their respective identities. A special service was held at Ibrox after the death of King George in 1952 (Walker, 1990), whilst the ground has regularly been used for the annual service of the Grand Orange Lodge in Scotland (Murray, 1984). During a tour of the United States in 1931 Celtic played under the Irish Republican flag, whilst in 1949 Celtic Park hosted the centenary celebrations for the Catholic Young Men’s Society of Britain. Since the 1960s, the club newspaper The Celtic View has regularly contained adverts for Irish ‘Rebel’ records, Irish nationalist celebrations and concerts by Irish folk band The Wolfe Tones (Bradley, 1996).

3.20     However, a consequence of Celtic’s Irish-Catholic connections is that the club has often become a focus for politico-religious antagonism. Since 1952, considerable controversy has surrounded the flying of the Irish tricolour over Celtic Park and the playing of the Irish ballad ‘The Fields of Athenry’ before home games (Bradley, 1996). The club has also come under severe criticism as a result of number of media “exposes”: for example, in 1989 the Celtic View editor was exposed as having made pro-IRA statements; in 1990 Celtic permitted The Wolfe Tones to film a video at Celtic Park that was allegedly pro-IRA; whilst in 1991 the board were condemned for inviting Irish band The Pogues to be guests of the club[16] (Bradley, 1996).

3.21     A number of players have also played a part in maintaining and promoting the identities of their respective clubs. In terms of on-pitch behaviour some Celtic players, in particular Peter Grant, have been known to cross themselves in an inflammatory manner in front of Rangers supporters, whilst Paul Gascoigne twice infamously mimicked a member of an Orange flute band (Murray, 1998). In 1987 Rangers’ Graham Roberts conducted the crowd in a rendition of ‘The Billy Boys’ during an Old Firm Derby, an event which lead to criminal proceedings. The behaviour of Roberts is particularly a cause for concern, as he remarked that ‘it’s just another song. I never knew the background of it all’ (BBC TV, 1999a).

3.22     In 1994 a Rangers player allegedly wore a “Hang IRA Murderers” T-shirt during championship celebrations (Murray, 1998), whilst in 1996 Rangers’ Charlie Miller was involved in a pub brawl after he had allegedly been singing sectarian songs. Television cameras have also witnessed Rangers players singing sectarian songs after and during matches[17], whilst in 1999 Rangers vice-chairman Donald Findlay QC resigned after being filmed singing sectarian songs after his team’s Cup Final victory. Findlay labelled his behaviour “a serious misjudgement” (BBC TV, 1999b). In particular, attention has been focussed on the political sympathies of former Rangers goalkeeper Andy Goram. During an Old Firm game in January 1998 Goram wore a black armband in memory of Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright, a member of the Loyalist Volunteer Force paramilitary group, who had recently been murdered by Republicans in Belfast’s Maze Prison (Murray, 1998). Further controversy ensued in February 1999 when Goram (then of Motherwell) chose not to play in a match against Celtic, as it was thought he may come under particularly strong pressure from Celtic supporters due to recent publicity regarding his alleged links with the Ulster Volunteer Force[18] (Glenn, 1999).

4. Red Hands and marching bands: Football and the expression of social identity in Northern Ireland

4.1       This section examines patterns of support in Northern Ireland and, in particular, the Protestant ethos that dominates football fandom in the province. It will be shown how the game acts as a source of identity for young, male Protestants in the face of problems related to deindustrialistaion, unemployment and their fears regarding the future of Northern Ireland, both in terms of its constitutional position as part of the United Kingdom and the numerically increasing Catholic / nationalist population within the province.

4.2       With the exception of Cliftonville, most major clubs in Northern Ireland have a predominantly Protestant support. Bairner and Shirlow (1999) argue that this can be attributed to three major factors. Firstly, football was introduced to Ireland during a period when sportive nationalists were attempting to create a separate sporting culture in opposition to what was perceived as British cultural imperialism. Consequently, the role of Irish-Catholics in the development of the game was less than that of Protestants and thus the former viewed the sport with suspicion (Cronin, 1999). Secondly, most senior clubs were established in areas where Protestants were and remain in the majority. Thirdly, due to continued violent antagonisms with Protestant supporters of a number of clubs (particularly Linfield), the two largest clubs to have attracted nationalist support, Belfast Celtic and Derry City, have had to withdraw from the Irish League[19] (Cronin, 1999).

4.3       Bairner and Shirlow (1999) contend that, in Northern Ireland, young Protestant males face problems relating to unemployment, their socially marginal position and fears regarding the future of Northern Ireland. Therefore they seek channels through which they can express their Loyalist identity. As Bell (in Bairner, 1997, p. 107) argues, football support operates as part of a more general Loyalist popular culture which “functions to encourage localistic loyalties, provide public and recreational space for the marginalised young, and furnish the symbolic resources for the construction of a distinctively Protestant sense of community for an increasingly beleaguered people”.

4.4       In particular Bell (in Bairner, 1997, p. 101) draws parallels between football support and Loyalist marching bands in that the combative performance of the latter “is not primarily musical in character and has perhaps closer similarities with the gestural activities of football supporters – and indeed these bands undoubtedly derive elements of their style from this source”. In a similar manner to the processes involved in football support, he argues that the “Kick the Pope” bands which accompany Orange marches “seem to provide for the dispossessed Loyalist youth of Ulster a sectarian habitus within which their generational concerns with communal identity and with winning space become fused with the focal concerns with territoriality and ethnic solidarity” (in Bairner & Shirlow, 1999, p.161).

4.5       Gillespie (in Bairner & Shirlow, 1999, p. 161) describes the identity of such supporters as “a mixture of selective theological dogma, anti-Catholicism and pragmatic loyalism”, yet despite their apparent lack of religiosity these people are extremely committed to the future of Ulster as an entity. Such sentiments are reflected in the anti-Catholic/pro-Loyalist paramilitary chants that can be heard at most Irish league grounds, especially when Cliftonville are the visitors. In explaining this anti-Catholic rhetoric, Bairner (1997) draws on the work of the Leicester University figurationalists (see e.g. Dunning, Murphy & Williams, 1988). He claims that the ‘rougher’ sections of the Protestant working-class remain less incorporated into the code of conduct demanded by the civilising process than other social groups and are disrespectful towards the agencies of state control (in this instance the Royal Ulster Constabulary). Thus they celebrate the achievements of their ‘proxy warriors’ on the pitch, together with those of paramilitary organisations. Bairner claims that senior football is one of the few public spaces in which people are able to express such sentiments, as neither the Irish Football Association (IFA) nor the RUC are particularly active in their attempts to suppress such behaviour. He argues that this is because (1) it is not seen as a major concern as it does not always lead directly to violence, and (2) there is a belief that such songs and chants are part of the social fabric of Northern Ireland.

4.6       As Bairner (1997, p.108) identifies, “supporting a particular club or the Northern Ireland team is inherited and supporters expect (and are generally granted) the right to follow football in the traditional manner even if that means the construction of a fundamentally anti-Catholic ambience”. However, as Sugden and Bairner (1986, p. 112) identify, “clannish sectarian divisions expressed through football are cross-cut by tribal affiliations grounded in territory”. For example, when Linfield play Glentoran (both clubs with staunchly Protestant/Loyalist support), supporters of the latter are inclined to invert their identity and provoke Linfield supporters by imitating Catholic rituals and wearing the colours of Glasgow Celtic. This is in an interesting development and one might suggest that in the absence of serious nationalist opposition (with the exception of Cliftonville), other sources of rivalry, such as those based around a common religio-political ideology, are engendered. In this instance Glentoran supporters appear to have sought this route and played on the fears amongst the hard-line loyalists within the Linfield support regarding an increasing Catholic population in the province and their insecurity over its constitutional future.

4.7       Until relatively recently Linfield have employed a Protestant-only selection policy. In 1992, for example, manager Eric Bowyer explicitly stated that, due to the prevailing social situation, he could not see the club signing a Catholic player. The club made a public declaration that it was non-sectarian and highlighted that over seventy Catholics had played for the club. Few of these had done so since the escalation of the Troubles in the late 1960s though. However, that year Linfield signed a Catholic, Chris Cullen, from Cliftonville, and further Catholic purchases followed in the succeeding seasons. According to Bairner (1994) this can be attributed to: (1) the team’s recent poor performances necessitating a wider selection policy; (2) pressure from the IFA which was concerned at criticism received from the Irish National Caucasus in the United States and threats of sponsorship withdrawal[20]; or (3) the club have never had a discriminatory policy. Notwithstanding this, Sugden and Bairner (1994) argue that it would still be difficult for Linfield to sign a Catholic from a nationalist area, due to the problems this would cause for the player.

4.8       Bairner and Shirlow (1999) highlight the role that football grounds play as venues for processes of identity formation and cultural resistance, in that for young Loyalists, the imagined community of Ulster as a Protestant place becomes more real through expressing their affiliation to a Protestant club. According to Bell (in Bairner & Shirlow, 1999, p.162) in doing so, they struggle “to resolve at the level of the imaginary, the real contradictions confronting the Protestant working-class in contemporary Northern Ireland”. Bairner and Shirlow (1999, p.162) posit that by supporting a Protestant team these individuals attempt to defend their home territory and “this reactive defensiveness is part of a more general ‘siege mentality’ which afflicts the unionist population and which derives from a sense that everything around them is undergoing fundamental and irrevocable change”.

5. Conclusion

5.1       This paper has highlighted the extent to which particular clubs in Scotland and Northern Ireland have been and continue to be used by various social groups for the expression of certain elements of their identities. It is evident that football provides an arena for these processes at regional, national and international level, yet in this instance the emphasis has been on relatively specific local political, religious and ethnic antagonisms. The clubs which today exhibit the strongest politico-religious traditions are to be found in those cities which have been subject to arguably the most fervent inter-group conflicts of such nature over the past few centuries. It is thus unsurprising that in these incidences sport has eschewed its desired apolitical nature and has been inextricably bound up with the politics of division. As Guttmann (1986, p. 164) identifies, “when a society is torn apart by social conflict, conflict will occur in conjunction with sports as it does in conjunction with everything else”.

5.2       The expression of social identity requires reference to both the group(s) to which an individual belongs and to those he/she does not. A consequence of this is the construction of ingroup-outgroup consciousness.  When this characteristic is present within a figuration consisting of distinct majority and minority groups, such as those in Northern Ireland and west central Scotland, an inevitable consequence is discrimination, or in particular, sectarianism. As a major element of working-class popular culture it is unsurprising that football remains a site for the articulation of such sentiments and the importance of football stadia for the expression of social identity cannot be overstated. Despite increasing attempts to decrease levels of racist abuse in professional football, many football grounds still remain arenas in which individuals can express their prejudices in a relatively safe environment and in a manner which is likely to be deemed unacceptable in most other social situations. In particular this is evident in Northern Ireland, where football is seen as one of the few remaining symbols of working-class Protestantism. This is reflected in the explicit Loyalism/anti-Catholicism that is still evident in the songs and chants of many football supporters. 

5.3       It has been argued that although one should refrain from making stereotypical assumptions about the characteristics of certain social groupings, distinct trends are evident within the supporters covered within this paper. In terms of politics, religion, perceived ethnicity/nationality and cultural symbols/icons the majority of Celtic supporters align themselves with a Catholic/nationalist position, whilst Rangers followers express a fundamentally contrasting Protestant/unionist identity. A similar pattern is likely to be present amongst supporters in Northern Ireland. This is reflected in the songs, symbols, banners and flags that have been appropriated by the respective groups and are now regularly exhibited at matches as an expression of their identities. It is important, however, to recognise that not all supporters will identify with all elements of their club’s identity and that individuals will attach differing degrees of significance to each of these parts. In a similar manner identities are always in flux and subject to changing prioritisation over both space and time. Notwithstanding this, it is apparent that support for a particular football team can represent not simply part, but also the combination, of an individual’s various political, religious and ethnic identities.

5.4       Whilst studies of football in Northern Ireland and Scotland have proved a popular source of enquiry within the sociology of sport, there is still a great deal of further research that can be done in these areas. As has been highlighted throughout this paper, much of the literature has been based on statistical patterns of allegiance and examining the wider social impacts of specific events. It would be interesting to carry out an ethnographic study of football in these two nations, particularly a life story / oral history approach, in order to examine individuals’ personal interpretations and reflections of playing football in contexts such as those outlined in this paper. In terms of the current political situation, it is also important to continually assess the impact of contemporary events. In particular, the ongoing internal conflict within the loyalist paramilitary organisations is likely to have significant social repercussions, and it will be extremely interesting to see how these are articulated within football and how they affect the relationship between different Protestant clubs.


[1] This is recognised by the club who, in 1991, made a statement in the matchday programme encouraging its supporters to follow Scotland rather than the Republic of Ireland (Bairner 1994a, p. 20).

[2] The subject matter of a number of The Corries’ songs relate to a desire for Scottish independence.

[3] Knox is a religious symbol of the Reformation and Protestant Scotland.

[4] Pearse was the leader of 1916 Irish Uprising.

[5] ‘The Billy Boys’ pays homage to the Bridgeton Billy Boys, a notorious 1930s ultra-Protestant / Orange razor gang. The gang was led by the symbolically titled “King” Billy Fullerton and were keen Rangers supporters.

[6] Football hooligans who wore designer label clothing rather than club colours, originally to avoid police detection but subsequently as a statement in itself.

[7] Billy Reid was an IRA volunteer who is said to have shot dead Gunner Robert Curtis of the British Army in Belfast in 1971, making Curtis the first British soldier to be killed in Ireland since the 1920s. Reid was killed only three months later during a gun battle with the army.

[8] The game was attended by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

[9] The fanzine, which translates as ‘Our day will come’ (the slogan of the Provisional IRA) seeks to gain political status for IRA prisoners and regularly donates money to such causes (Murray, 1998, p. 185).

[10] According to Detective Inspector Peter Chapman of the English Football Intelligence Unit, similar sentiments can be found in England: ‘the one thing we do find that runs through football is the violently anti-Irish feeling’ (Bradley, 1998, pp. 205-6).

[11] The curva are the sections of terracing/seating behind the goals and populated by the most passionate supporters, particularly ultras.

[12] Hope was responsible for the successful Rangers Social Club and Rangers pools.

[13] In 1978, the issue of Rangers’ alleged sectarianism was raised by Presbyterian Church Paper The Bush. The paper’s circulation immediately dropped from 13,000 to 8,000 (Kuper, 1995, p.206).

[14] The club had fielded a number of Catholics at the start of the century, whilst Don Kichenbrand and Laurie Blyth played in the 1950s. John Spencer (a youth player at the time) was also a Catholic.

[15] Johnston’s father is in fact Protestant yet his mother is Catholic and he attended a Catholic school.

[16] The band were perceived to have IRA connections as they had recorded a song in support of the ‘Birmingham Six’.

[17] Stuart McCall (who was injured and watching from the stands) was filmed singing sectarian songs during a match against Celtic at Celtic Park in 1996 (Murray, 1998, p. 151).

[18] In February 1999 a Sunday tabloid newspaper printed a photo of Goram holding a Ulster Volunteer Force banner and in the company of alleged Loyalist sympathisers (Glenn, 1999).

[19] Belfast Celtic no longer exist yet in 1985, Derry City were finally granted special dispensation by FIFA to enter the League of Ireland in the Republic.

[20] The Northern Ireland national team play their home games at Linfield’s Windsor Park.


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