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`I'm Catholic in a football sense'

Football is the focus of centuries of religious difference: acrimony around the game touches the very heart of Scotland. Jack O'Sullivan meets those for whom Celtic is, literally, a religion
On Saturday night, 16-year-old Tho-mas McFadden was stabbed to death after being chased down the street after the Celtic-Rangers derby. Thomas wore a green shirt: he was a Celtic fan of Irish Catholic background.

The same night, Donald Findlay QC, vice-chairman of Rangers Football Club, was celebrating his team's victory at a club dinner. Findlay, Scotland's leading criminal lawyer, is a Protestant and proud of it. But he was embarrassed to be caught on video singing sectarian songs. They included "The Billy Boys", a verse of which goes: "We're up to our knees in Fenian blood/ Surrender or you die/ We are the Billy Boys."

By Monday, Findlay had resigned his post at Rangers amid a furore about sectarianism, which both clubs are trying to stamp out. And, with that, the episode was closed in Scotland. These events, polite society seems to have concluded, are about football, a mad tribalism that rages briefly on a Saturday afternoon. Such events are dismissed as merely the death throes of a neanderthal age, best forgotten, nothing to do with a new Scotland that boasts its own Parliament.

Even Donald Findlay, despite his place among the first ranks of Scottish society, could be dismissed as an eccentric. Those generous whiskers look so Victorian. No one mentioned that Findlay is just a man of his age, whose appearance recalls his team's greatest moment. Look at a photograph of the Ranger's team that won the European Cupwinners' Cup in 1972 and you will see that all the players had those huge thick sideburns. Mr Findlay has just never shaved them since.

Polite society would prefer to bury conversation about religious bigotry. That is one reason why, in the 2001 census, Scotland is the only part of the UK which will not include a question about religious affiliation.

To drinkers in Baird's Bar in the East End of Glasgow, the decision about the census appears to be a glaring omission. JJ McPhee, a 47-year-old Catholic man and a Celtic supporter, was born and bred in the East End. So were his parents and his grandparents. He has never been to Ireland. He thinks that his great-granny might have come from County Meath. Yet he is decked out in green shirt and hat in a pub with a green bar and images of John F Kennedy and Irish memorabilia. I am bemused by this and ask him what would he call himself.

"I am Scottish, but only by birth. I would rather have been born in Ireland," he says, pointing at the image of a phoenix (a republican symbol) on his shirt. "Scotland is a Protestant country and they seem to think they own it. I'm not proud to be Scottish. There are places in Scotland where Catholics are hated." So how does he feel about the great new Scottish Parliament? "I don't like the idea of home rule," he says. "I don't think Catholics will get a fair crack of the whip."

It is an extraordinary statement of political disaffection. Others in the bar feel the same way. And these are not a disaffected minority. Last week I had dinner with a member of Donald Dewar's Scottish executive. "Have you noticed," he said, "how few Catholics there are in the Parliament?" I hadn't. But he had.

Raymond Boyle heads the Department of Film and Media Studies at Stirling University and recently published Out of the Ghetto - the Catholic Community in Modern Scotland. "The problem with Scottish identity is that most of the symbols of it are Protestant," he says. You can start with the location of the new Scottish Parliament - in the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. This may not seem strange to many Scots. After all, the Church of Scotland supported devolution for decades. But if you were Catholic, from the west of Scotland, it might not quite seem like your sort of place. All this must be confusing to those who think that the disaffected in Scotland are simply fed up with the English. But it is becoming clear that some of them are also fed up with the Scottish.

I ask JJ McPhee if, given the importance of being a Catholic, he goes to Mass. "Oh no. I don't believe in religion much. I'm Catholic in a football sense, not a religious sense. You could say Celtic is my religion."

Baird's Bar is a shrine. The photographs of Jock Stein, Celtic's greatest manager, and Kenny Dalgleish, the team's goal-scoring star, are framed like holy pictures. But there are no posters of the Pope. There is no red light above a statue of the Sacred Heart. Indeed, I'm reminded that both Jock Stein and Kenny Dalgleish are actually Protestant. But that doesn't matter. Catholic and Irish identity has been collapsed into supporting Celtic.

It all goes to explain why football is so important in Scotland. Until the fall of communism, only Albania could boast a higher percentage of citizens who attend matches. Into football is poured centuries of religious difference springing from a society which the Reformation dominated but which also played host to serious Catholic rebellion; a society which, in the 19th century, saw massive emigration from Catholic, famine-ridden Ireland into a country shaped by Calvinism.

There are five million people in Scotland. Every weekend more than 100,000 of them attend games involving either Rangers or Celtic. Nor is it merely a working-class activity. As the revelations about Donald Findlay demonstrate, the passion for football and the ethnic/religious acrimony which surrounds it, penetrate right into the heart of Scottish society, particularly in the west.

"Glasgow is not Belfast," emphasises Dr Boyle. "That young lad was stabbed, but people are not shot or bombed out of their houses." However, sectarianism is rarely far below the surface. Only this week, the SNP, which is striving to shake off its Protestant image to attract Catholic Labour voters, was accused of "playing the Orange card". In a recent local election, it was accused of "outing" a Labour opponent, Sally Lee. The SNP constantly referred to her full name - Sarah Theresa Lee. Her middle name gave her away as a Catholic.

Those who thought the Scottish Parliament would be untouched by sectarianism are likely to be disappointed. "Now we have our own Parliament to do battle over scarce resources," said one analyst, "all these issues of who gets what will come to the surface." The first is likely to be about the continued state funding of separate Catholic schools, institutions that both express and entrench divisions in Scottish schools. Cardinal Thomas Winning has already made clear, in challenging Labour's lukewarm support, that he is in the mood for a fight. We can only hope that it is all a little more civilised than a Celtic-Rangers match.