I used to be a very active child. Back when I was a wee guy, I ran. And when I say that, I mean I ran. I was like a wind-up toy, as soon as my mam or gran lowered me to the ground, off I went, tearing down the road as fast as my wee piston-like legs could carry me. It got me into no small amount of trouble, as I frequently found my poor mam or gran miles away, even as I kept running. Even today, I still remember the exilaration of running: the sense of leaving the world behind me, the sense of control over my destiny as I left adults coughing in my dust, the rush of endorphins and adrenaline pumping into my little brain. As such an active child, it seemed natural I would get into football: half the game is running, after all. Even if I didn’t have a particularly competitive edge, I would at least have fun playing, right?
Only I live in the West Coast of Scotland. I grew up during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Football wasn’t a simple game for me.
I’m only hours old. I’m in an incubator at Rankin Memorial, at Inverclyde Royal: something happened during labour, depriving me of oxygen. I was stillborn. I wasn’t aware of the discussions my family had, not at this age, and not while still unconscious. It was only when I was much older that my mother told me: that the first thing one of my family members said to her was, “so… is he going to be baptised?” I’m glad I wasn’t aware of the significance of that question.
I was the product of one of those “mixed marriages” Dara Ó Briain so bitingly satirised. On the one side, the Harrons: staunch Ulster-Scots Protestants, my grandfather a member of the Independent Loyal Orange Lodge of Greenock. On the other, the Keoghs: Catholics with a rich Irish heritage, my grandparents active churchgoers and believers. A Harron boy and a Keogh girl got married. Things were bad then – not quite as bad as in the 1970s, but still bad. I was only two months old when three British soldiers were killed by the Provisional IRA; seven months old when Patrick Magee tried to assassinate the Prime Minister. 19 people were killed, and dozens more wounded, in Troubles violence during my first year on the planet.
I didn’t know this at the time, naturally. But the clouds of the Troubles were always present in our daily lives: even if the majority of violence took place in Ireland and England, we Scots were dreading the news that it would be our turn next. How long before a bomb would go off in a Scottish pub? Soldiers were killed by IRA hands on Scottish soil – how much longer until civilians would die? It’s not a nice feeling, on top of fears of nuclear oblivion.
Five years old. I’m at my grandparent’s house – my father’s parents. We visit every few weeks, to keep up. I’d just started school, at St. Ninian’s Primary. I remember many things from that house: the wee silver Scotty Dog that sat on the marble fireplace, Gran’s chirping budgie with vivid yellow and green plumage, the smell of grandpa’s rolled tobacco. A framed black-and-white photograph of a football team.
And the “rug.”
I didn’t know what else to call it at my age: to me, it would always be the rug. It was a tapestry, lavishly and lovingly woven. It depicted a soldier clad in red finery, astride a white horse, raising his sword against a backdrop of orange and blue. Above him “William, Prince of Orange”; below, “in glorious and immortal memory.” The rug hadn’t always been there, next to Gran’s music box that played “Some Enchanted Evening” and the family portraits, so I never thought to ask what it was about. So I asked Gran. That, she said, belonged to my great grandmother – and she told me the story of King Billy.
I remember my first football game. I didn’t know anything about the rules. I just ran, and ran, and ran, and occasionally kicked the ball to whoever asked me to, and ran some more. Boy, did my fellow players not like that! I was constantly chastised by my bewildered teammates: “don’t kick to him, he’s on the other team,” “don’t pick up the ball,” “don’t kick it to the goalie.” I didn’t get picked first for most games. In fairness, I can’t exactly blame them: they were taking this all much more seriously than I was.
But for me, the joy of football was the same as the joy of running: the speed, the excitement, the motion through time and space as the wind whistled in your ears, with the added impetus of controlling an inflated ball. I’m sure if I carried on, I would gain an appreciation for the strategic perspective of defence and whatnot. But for now, all I cared about was running wild, kicking a ball without care for destination. It was fun… for a while.
Eight years old. I’m in the changing rooms at the Hector McNeil Swimming Baths. Just me and another boy. I’m getting ready to leave, he was getting ready to go in. We don’t say anything: we simply get our gear packed or unpacked. But the other boy was eyeing me suspiciously. When I caught him looking, he averted his gaze. Eventually, as I’m doing up my shoes, he broke the silence. “You a proddy?” I shook my head, and said “no.” Furrowing his brow, he took off his socks and went into the shower area. I had no idea what a “proddy” was, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t one – it sounded like the sort of thing you’d know whether you were or not. I’d have to ask Mam later.
What’s your favourite dinosaur? Who’s your favourite turtle? How about your favourite film, book, song? These are the sort of questions eight-year-old Aly was comfortable with, because I knew that even if people disagreed, there was at least a point of commonality. We could talk about dinosaurs and cartoons and films and books and music, even if we didn’t like the same ones. There was never any sense that people who liked Ankylosaurus thought less of you if you liked Diplodocus. I never felt like I had to be cautious about who I could reveal my appreciation to Michelangelo to. I never worried that my favourite film, book or song would cause a fight.
There are some questions that just crop up in casual conversation. Questions that would seem innocuous anywhere else are tinged with menace and accusation when asked in the West of Scotland. “What school did you go to?” “What team do you support?” “Church or Chapel?” My school seemed an odd thing to be interested in. I didn’t support any particular team, but if pressed, I’d go with the local team. What anyone called a place of worship seemed immaterial. But the look in people’s eyes when they asked those questions soon encouraged me to answer them in a particular way. “Gourock.” “Morton.” “You first.” Why on earth were people so interested in my education, sport, and religion? And why is it there seem to be all these teams?
Nobody seemed to acknowledge how crazy this was. I couldn’t understand why my family didn’t react with bewilderment when I told them. This is nuts, I thought – why is this something people fight over in this day and age? If they agreed it was crazy, they couldn’t explain why they went along with it – if they didn’t, then they were suspicious of why I thought it was.
Eleven years old. I’m with friends from one of many extracurricular groups. It’s just after an old firm match. “Our” team had won – not my team, because I didn’t have one – and they were jubilant. This was my first time hearing “The Billy Boys.” Dozens of excited, fired-up, triumphant boys my age and thereabouts, singing joyously about being up to their knees in my ancestor’s blood. Every word felt like a punch in the chest – like two dozen punches at once. They knew my mother was one of those people they refer to – my grandparents, my aunt and uncle. My family. But they sang it anyway.
Just a song. Even when thousands of people sing it at you. It isn’t an act of aggression, roaring about blood and surrender and death as part of a massed united force. It isn’t as if massed hordes of people singing in unison against another massed horde of people has a history of intimidation and aggression. It’s tradition. It’s celebration. It’s just a song.
Football wasn’t fun for me anymore. My teammates got angry. Angry at me, for not doing well, as well as angry at the other team. Even when we won, everyone was angry. Even when we were triumphant, it felt like it was masking a greater anger simmering under the surface.
I never felt part of it. I always felt distinctly separate, in victory and in defeat, whenever I played. I was too cheerful about a good game well played for my teammates when we lost, and I didn’t feel comfortable in the wild scrum of victory. This was magnified tenfold when part of the crowd rather than the pitch. So when the teams are chanting and singing and screaming at each other, I never felt the protection of the crowd – because, often, I felt like I was the enemy of both teams at once.
Thirteen years old. Religious Education at Notre Dame High School. As part of RE, we learn about other religions: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Sikhism. I develop a particular fondness for Jainism, as the great expression of pacifism and nonviolence of the religious world. Today’s discussion is about souls, and what the various religions believe. A classmate asks if everyone has a soul: the teacher replies that Catholics believe everyone does. A wisecracker in our class interjects: “except for proddys.” The teacher immediately chastised him and sent him to the headteacher’s office – but not before a ripple of laughter echoed around the suddenly cavernous schoolroom.
I’ll never forget that sniggering, that surreptitious tittering of amusement from some – not all, not most, but still some – of the class. The teacher’s reaction was a dash of cold water that froze the ripples of the lake. They realised it wasn’t funny. But more than that, I’ll remember my reaction. In a split second, I experienced first shock, then anger at what the boy was implying about my family. But then, I felt myself starting to smile – for I feared that not smiling, not sharing the joke, would have consequences for me at break time. After all, they all knew my father was a “proddy,” didn’t they? And I’ll never forgive myself for that shameful moment, where I found myself preparing to laugh at a joke aimed at my own father, grandparents, and cousins – their very souls – because that was preferable to the alternative.
If I’ve been hard on myself for that day, it’s because I look to it as a source of determination. I resolved, there and then, that no matter what, I must never let fear of reprisal bully me into capitulation. I tried so hard to fit in at the best of times – futile, for High School is a merciless cage for those who are different. If the price of acceptance was going with the crowd even when they engage in racism, sexism, and sectarianism, then I realised it really isn’t worth it.
I thought about my family. Looking back in the history of the Troubles, I see my name coming up. Gordon Harron was 31 when he was killed: Corporal Thomas Harron was 24. How distantly – how closely – related was I to these men, who lost their lives in all this madness?
653. October 21, 1972
Gordon Harron, North Belfast
RUC, Protestant, 32
He was fatally injured four days earlier in an incident which led to a member of the UDA/UFF being sentenced to the death penalty but later reprieved. Constable Harron, who came from Bangor, and a colleague from the RUC’s traffic branch were wounded when the passenger of a hijacked car they had stopped on the outskirts of Belfast fired 13 bullets at them.
In a subsequent trial, the court heard that police raided the home of the defendant on October 23 and found several licensed guns, including a pistol which had fired the fatal shot. The court heard that three men in the car, responding to police orders, got out of the vehicle and placed their hands on its roof. Constable Harron stood guard with a submachine-gun while the other constable ordered the defendant out as well.
– Lost Lives by David McKittrick, page 284
2544. July 13, 1983
Thomas Harron, Tyrone
UDR, Protestant, 24, married, 1 child
The private, from Parkside Gardens, Sion Mills, co. Tyrone, had a daughter.
(from Oswell Neely’s entry)
He was one of four UDR soldiers killed when a bomb exploded beneath their Land Rover at Drumquin, Co. Tyrone… More UDR men died in the bombing than in any other single attack since the regiment was founded in 1970. The men were in the last of five vehicles on their way from Omagh to Ballykinler military camp in Co. Down for a training exercise. As the convoy reached the top of Ballymacilroy Hill, two miles from Ballygawley on the main road between Omagh and the Monaghan border, the 600lb culvert bomb exploded.
Three of the soldiers were killed instantly and the fourth died later in hospital.
– Lost Lives by David McKittrick, page 946
But there are stories to celebrate, too. Maurice Harron was born and raised in Northern Ireland, and sought to use art to express his desire for peace and understanding. As of this post, Maurice is still alive.
To most younger people today, perhaps even most people outside the West Coast of Scotland, the Troubles may seem faraway, distant, ancient history. They aren’t to me – they’re part of the living tapestry that makes up my life, my family, my community. It’s part of who I am. Denying it, or otherwise shuffling it under the carpet, doesn’t heal anything. Bringing it into the open, and acknowledging this part of our history, is the only way to get past it.
The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA) has been vigorously opposed: some on legislative grounds, others on ethical grounds. But it’s clear that it is popular, has widespread support, it allows for prosecution which is not covered by existing law, and has been concurrent with a fall in sectarian incidents & violence at football. If the Holyrood opposition truly wants to change the law, then I think it’s only right to propose a replacement. The Other Party had ten years to sort out sectarianism in Scotland – indeed, their MSPs have been clamouring for something to be done for years – so I’m sure they have plenty of stuff in the files to work with. For the Greens to disagree with Stonewall and Equality Network’s support would suggest that they, too, have their own ideas in how to tackle sectarianism.
I’ve written before about the work I’ve done in anti-sectarianism, and about how and why I came to such initiatives. It would be too easy for me to simply condemn the other parties for proposing to scrap a law without anything to replace it, with only some woolly references to drawing boards or ground-up. But if I can make one appeal, it’s this: nothing is made in isolation. For all the problems you have with the OBFA, with nothing in place to replace or improve what it means to address, something horrible will fill the vacuum.
We saw it this year. The UK leaving the European Union in and of itself is not the bad thing: plenty of left-wing, socialist, and otherwise liberal folk promoted a Leave vote earlier this year. I’m sure that it could have been possible to leave the EU on good, friendly terms: Greenland managed alright, after all. The vast majority of people who voted to Leave are not bigots, xenophobes, or racist. But the bigots, xenophobes and racists can only function with the silence or ignorance of good people – and it is for that reason hate crimes have risen in the aftermath in every country except Scotland.
Once again, it is not because Scotland is inherently “better” than England, Wales, or Northern Ireland – it’s because we’ve worked damned hard at it. It’s much more difficult than I think people suspect. I was one of those silent “good people” that day in school, because of the tyranny of the crowd. It’s easy to say that you, an individual, are a good person, and it’s no doubt true – but the power of consensus & conformity is foreboding. And when dozens, then scores, then hundreds of people are singing songs about death and killing and war and murder, then can you be certain that you would stand up and say it isn’t on? What’s the use in being a good person if you are unwilling or unable to do something? I say that in full knowledge that I have failed in some of those situations: it takes all of my resolve and confidence to root myself to the ground and say “no, you move.” Not all of us can be August Landmesser.
I wish I could engage on the intricacies of the OBFA, the fine details of the legislation, and the points of opponents of the law. But all I can think of is being that wee boy in a sea of humanity roaring what amounted to war anthems. It didn’t matter to that wee boy that there was not hatred in the hearts of most of the voices in that chorus. It didn’t matter that most of the individuals in the crowd wouldn’t dream of singing those songs alone, or even in a smaller group. All it takes is for a core of hatred to twist and poison a multitude, and you end up with a tidal wave.
If opponents of the OBFA can formulate a cogent, tight, and effective alternative which can stop this, then by all means, propose it. But just as bigots incorrectly took a Leave vote as vindication of their bigotry, today’s vote will be met with the greatest acclaim by exactly the wrong people – unless the people who are truly anti-sectarian can show they’re serious. I don’t want any child to experience the intimidation, the hatred, the sense of helpless isolation, that I did growing up. As a child of both Catholic and Protestant, I always felt like those thousands of people were singing directly at me, whether they wore blue or green.
This is too important an issue for it to be a sacrifice on the altar of party politics. Football may be a sport – but this is not a game.
Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, you move.”
– Captain America, Amazing Spider-Man #537