x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bombs sent to Celtic Football Club manager Neil Lennon stoke sectarian fears

Explosive devices capable of causing serious injury or death are posted to the Celtic manager, and a leading lawyer and politician.

LONDON// Parcel bombs sent to the manager and two prominent supporters of Celtic Football Club have heightened fears of a growing, violent sectarian rift between Christian groups in Scotland.

Police on Wednesday disclosed that "viable" explosive devices capable of causing serious injury or death had been posted to Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, and a leading lawyer and politician. The devices were intercepted before they detonated.

Celtic, one of the "big two" clubs in Scottish football, has traditionally been Glasgow's Roman Catholic team. Glasgow Rangers, its main rivals, has always been the Protestant side.

Despite efforts by police, politicians and the football authorities to close this community divide over the years - and despite the fact footballers of all religions now play for both teams - sectarian rivalry between the two sets of supporters appears to have been growing.

Only last month, Alex Salmond, the first minister in the quasi independent Scottish parliament, called a summit of political leaders, officials and police after a Celtic-Rangers cup tie led to angry clashes between players, supporters and two managers.

In scenes Mr Salmond described as "shameful", Mr Lennon squared up to Ally McCoist, Rangers' assistant manager, on the touchline after the game, 34 fans were arrested after fights and charged with sectarian offences, three players were sent off and 13 received yellow cards for violent conduct on the field.

After another Celtic-Rangers game in February, there were more than 230 arrests, prompting Strathclyde Police to say: "There can be no doubt that the levels of drunken violence that have blighted our communities and the number of people who have been arrested due to their sectarian behaviour, are simply unacceptable. Something has to be done."

Last year, Scottish football referees went on strike after complaints about the supposed biased they showed in officiating at Celtic games by Lord (John) Reid, the club chairman.

Almost simultaneously, the Scottish Football Association fired its director of refereeing and several other officials after a sectarian cartoon ridiculing the Pope's visit to Britain last year was circulated.

The discovery of the parcel bombs - two sent last month to Mr Lennon, one to the lawyer Paul McBride QC, and a fourth discovered last Friday addressed to the former Scottish Labour Party leader MSP Trish Godman - significantly increased fears over rising sectarianism.

Det Supt John Mitchell described the sending of the bombs as "a despicable and cowardly act".

He told a press conference in Glasgow: "The devices were definitely capable of causing significant harm and injury to individuals if they had opened them."

As both a player and manager, Lennon, 39, has faced previous sectarian threats. He retired as an international player for Northern Ireland after saying he had received death threats from a paramilitary group.

Three years ago, he was attacked on a Glasgow street and, earlier this year, was sent a package containing spent bullets.

Reporters became aware of the letter bombs last week but agreed to delay publishing their discovery to prevent hampering the police investigation.

Mr Salmond chaired a special sub-committee of the Scottish government on Saturday to review the police investigation and to demonstrate that "we will not tolerate this sort of criminality in Scotland", he said on Wednesday.

He added: "These disgraceful events should remind all of us who love the game of football of what unites us as a community.

"It is time to remember what we value in society, and unite to condemn those who use football as a pretext for their pathetic and dangerous prejudices."

Even tighter security measures are now being put in place for the next "old firm" game between the two clubs, which is taking place this Sunday and could prove crucial in determining which of the two wins this year's league title.