Mail bombs in Scotland reflect deep soccer rivalry

As sporting rivalries go, few carry as much passion and fervor

as a soccer match between Glasgow clubs Rangers and Celtic.

But ancient divisions in Scotland’s largest city run much deeper

than allegiance to the clubs known collectively as the ”Old

Firm.” Soccer is more than just a passing hobby here as support is

drawn along deep religious and sectarian divides.

That conflict came to the fore Wednesday with news that parcel

bombs had been sent to Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two prominent

club supporters. The devices were intercepted before they reached

their intended targets.

”They were definitely capable of causing significant harm and

injury to individuals if they had opened them,” Detective Chief

Superintendent John Mitchell of Strathclyde police said.

While police didn’t discuss the motive behind the mail bombs,

sectarian tensions in both Northern Ireland and in Glasgow are

regularly played out between Celtic fans, who are mostly Catholic,

and Rangers fans, who are mostly Protestant.

”We are fans of the most tribal clubs in the world – the

outside world has to understand that,” Dennis O’Neil, a

44-year-old Celtic fan, said Wednesday outside the club’s Celtic

Park stadium. ”But this takes it too far.”

At Ibrox, home to Rangers, 28-year-old David McIver said: ”This

is not happening in my name. This is probably just one crazy man

doing this.”

Strathclyde Police have reported increases in domestic violence

after Old Firm games and said in the last two years 2,400 crimes

could be connected to the matches, including attempted murders,

riots and assaults on emergency workers.

The current season is one of the closest in years, with both

clubs fighting for the Scottish Premier League title. The next

matchup comes on Easter Sunday, the seventh and final Old Firm

clash of the season, and authorities are hoping the game will be

remembered for the right reasons.

Tom Devine, a historian at Edinburgh University who has advised

the Scottish government on sectarianism, believes the mail bomb

campaign could prove a turning point in authorities’ desire to

tackle the problem.

”This level of violence is totally unprecedented in Scottish

and European football (soccer) and it should concentrate the minds

of the authorities,” he said. ”We may witness a watershed, where

at last the authorities such as the police and judiciary actually

use the laws we have in place to deal with offenders.”

He called attempted bombings ”a humiliation for the Scots, who

see their prime virtue as being a country of the Scottish

Enlightenment. This is the country of David Hume and Adam Smith,

not this form of bigotry.”

Lennon, a Catholic and former Northern Ireland international,

has been the focus of previous hate campaigns by Rangers fans,

first as a player at the club and then as manager. He quit

international soccer in 2002 after claiming he had received death

threats from a paramilitary group in Northern Ireland.

In early March, Lennon and Rangers counterpart Ally McCoist had

to be separated after they clashed on the pitch at the end of an

Old Firm game.

Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond called a summit of the two

clubs and police in an effort to calm the atmosphere. But

Strathclyde Police revealed on Wednesday that, just two days after

that match, the first parcel bomb to Lennon was intercepted at a

Royal Mail sorting office in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, about 33 miles

(53 kilometers) south of Glasgow.

Since then, Lennon’s lawyer Paul McBride and Celtic-supporting

lawmaker Trish Godman were also targeted by mail bombs.

Salmond described those responsible as ”a lunatic


Amid both sets of fans are extremists who sport flags and

banners supporting paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland such as

the Real IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Rangers wouldn’t sign Catholic players or staff until Mo

Johnston, a former Celtic player, crossed the divide and joined the

club in 1989. He was vilified and hailed a hero in equal measure

during his two-year stint.

UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, recently announced two

charges against Rangers for sectarian chanting by its fans at

Europa League matches against the Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.

Devine believes the current crisis is the result of greater

integration of Irish Catholics into Scottish society.

”Ironically, we now have a burgeoning new Irish Catholic middle

class, many of whom are probably not even churchgoers, but are no

longer prepared to keep their heads below the parapet like their

forebears,” he said.

”This is not just about religious groupings, it is also tribal

and semi-ethnic,” Devine said.

Since the touchline clash in early March, Lennon and McCoist

have sought to stress cordial relations between the clubs.

McCoist, who played for Scotland and appears regularly on TV

quiz shows, said Rangers and Celtic staff regularly socialize with

each other and their wives and girlfriends.

”If that bomb was intended to inflict pain and damage on

people, then it is an evil act and should be dealt with in the

right way,” he said.

Peter Lawwell, the chief executive of Celtic, said in a

statement: ”It is an intolerable state of affairs which must end.

We enjoy friendship and respect throughout the world yet, here in

Scotland, we are caught up in these vile events.”