An Important Visitor


Sociologists have a term for what an outsider does to a society just by being there.

The stranger conducts a “commonsense inventory”.

This is not a conscious act, but just because the outside has not been socialised into that system they have an effect of making everyone there consider what is the accepted wisdom.

Eoin Ryan the Fianna Fail MEP from Dublin caused official Scotland to carry out a common sense inventory last Thursday in Scotland.

I was there to witness the event.

Eoin Ryan had raised the anti-Irish racism in Scotland as manifested by the singing of the “Famine Song” by Rangers supporters.

Eoin Ryan, an MEP for the governing Fianna Fail party, took the issue up in early November.

He raised it in the European parliament. His contribution was heard by SNP MEP Alyn Smith.

The Scottish nationalist decided to invite Ryan to Scotland to show him around.

I was alerted to this day out from Brussels by a journalist colleague in Scotland.

His impending visit was picked up by Irish Independent political correspondent Aine Kerr.

Ryan was interviewed in RTE’s radio show “Drivetime” by Mary Wilson.

Wilson persistently used the term ”sectarianism” whereas Ryan stuck to his guns. This was an issue about racism in sport and the Famine Song was racism against the Irish in Scotland.

I called Ryan the following day at his office in Brussels. He joked with me as he described the “fan mail” that he had received that morning from people who-lets say-don’t have a problem with the famine song.

I empathised telling him it sounded like the toxic waste that flows into my website most days. The toxic sludge produced by the Ibrox belief system.

When I called back to check on his in itinerary for the day his office person said that I should liase directly with Dave Harmon the press guy for the Fianna Fail group in the European parliament.

Over the next few days Dave and I were in regular contact about which papers I should file to when the day was over.

He has happy to have a print journalist in attendance that knew the story. He had read my stuff about the Famine Song controversy in the Sunday tribune.

We had originally thought that the entire day was to be at the Scottish parliament where Eoin would meet the appropriate stakeholders and the Scottish government minister Fergus Ewing.

I arranged through a contact to get myself press accreditation for that day into the Scottish parliament.

I flew to Glasgow on the Wednesday night and ready to be in Edinburgh to meet the Irish MEP at the Scottish parliament.

When I arrived at Glasgow airport my cell phone had message from my contact in the Scottish parliament.

The day-in the main-would he held in Glasgow.

Dave phoned me early Thursday morning was I already know that the day would start with a meeting at 11.00am at the City Chambers.

I agreed to meet Dave there.

I was there for 10.30 and showed my press card I got a pass to the “councillor’s corridor” this is, I thought, Glasgow’s West Wing.

For all the derision of local government in Glasgow the City Chambers is hugely impressive.

How much more impressive would it have been when it first opened in 1883?

Built at a cost of £500,000 in 1883 prices.

The cost today would be many millions of pounds.

I thought of the Irish of the period, Famine survivors being awed by this building and the people who controlled it.

This is the historical moment when the Punch Cartoons were depicting Irish people as half ape half human.

The first people that Eoin Ryan was to meet were people with responsibility for crowd control  at football matches including, of course, the police.

The guy representing Glasgow’s finest was Inspector Drew Innes.

His job title is “Operational Planning G Division”.

He is the top cop that covers policing operations for Ibrox and Hampden.

An instantly likeable, straight talking cop. So I asked him in terms of TFS what laws, possibly, were being broken?

He didn’t miss a beat.

“Section 74 of the Criminal Justice Scotland Act 2003”

I asked Drew what that law said?

“There is an offence of Breach of the Peace by Racial prejudice”.

I then asked about the warning on the Ibrox screens last month at the cup game with Hamilton Accies.

Drew looked to the ceiling.

“You want me to put the notebook away Drew? We can go off the record.” I offered.

“No, its fine, no problem.”

I had reported on the warning to the Rangers supporters at the Rangers Hamilton game and that, my initial understanding was that it had been a police-warning put up on the club’s screens.

“No, it was a club statement after they had consulted with us.”

It was clear from his demeanour that there had been something of a mini-drama behind the screens at Ibrox apropos this statement about TFS being sung inside the stadium.

Our conversation then drifted to what the Famine meant for the Irish collective psyche and how, on TV, there had been a couple of major events on RTE about the Famine and what it meant for modern Ireland.

I remarked that whoever wrote this ditty and the chaps who belt it out couldn’t have grasped the synchronicity of using the events of 1847 to bait people of Irish descent in Glasgow in 2008.

He took it on board.

“Bad timing then?”

“Very bad timing Drew.”

Other people were filing into the room I thanked Drew and before I could go and speak to anyone else he handed me his card and offered me his hand.

“Keep in touch, it would be good to know how people are feeling about this in Ireland, the level of feeling.”

I walked over to some people, one of who introduced himself as David Bell of the Scottish government.

I showed Mr. Bell my press card and told him I was covering the day for the Irish Post and titles in Ireland.

“You do realise that these are private meetings?” said the guy from the government.

I was still processing the import of what he ha just said to the fourth estate when my cell phone rang.

It was Dave Harmon he was down stairs and it sounded urgent.

I bounced down the palatial stairs and finally met with they guy I had been speaking to on the phone for days.

“Listen, the Scots are really really edgy about this whole thing. They’ve even freaked that I have invited the TV!”

I didn’t believe, initially, what was unfolding.

“Listen.” Dave said.

“I’ll give you a full brief when we come out of the meetings.”

A cameraman and another person were coming down the stairs. The guy without the camera introduced himself as David Henderson of Reporting Scotland.

He also thought it, at best, iffy that there was to be no access for the media.

The last time I was in Scotland I used the time honoured journalistic technique of “Door stepping” this time I employed another technique “the grab”.

I initially wanted down in the main area to see who was attending.  That’s when I saw Billy Singh of Show Racism The Red Card.

“Hello Billy”

He had been surprised at Tynecastle, but perhaps this time he was half-expecting to see the guy from the Irish Post.

“I read your piece.” He smiled.

“And?” I asked.

“It was honest I’ll give you that. It was fair comment.”

“I always try to be that in my work Billy then people have no grumbles with you.”

I asked him for his mobile phone number.

“I don’t give out my mobile number”

“Not even to the media? You have to deal with the media.”

“No contact the office if you want to get hold of me.”

Remember dear reader I door stepped the same chap because my calls weren’t returned from SRTRC’s office, but it aint personal, it is only business.

I offered him my mobile number.

He keyed in the number and  “Phil..” he hesitated 

“I’ll put you in as comrade Phil” he joked.

In the end he keyed in “Phil Journo” that works for me I thought.

What Billy didn’t know was that I already had his mobile number, but I wanted to see his reaction to the guy from the Irish Post asking for it.

I went back upstairs with my backstage pass to where the meeting was about to take place.

The big doors were closed and the meeting, including a working lunch was planned to last two hours.

One of them, I thought, would have to go to the toilet.

After about 35 minutes out came a young bearded chap in a checked waistcoat who introduced himself:

“Hello I’m Grant Baskerville the press officer to Alyn Smith.”

I resisted any observations about being a newshound, as, even by his young age, he would have heard them all several times over.

This was an important lad in the proceedings it was Alyn Smith MEP who had responded to Eoin Ryan’s statement in the European Parliament by inviting the Irish politician

I showed him my press card and told him the titles I would be filing to.

Young Baskerville then blurted out:

“We’re not sweeping anything under the carpet in there!”

It sounded like someone protesting just a bit too loudly.

I smiled and walked away.

There was nothing to do but await “a grab”.

I didn’t have to wait for long. Another straight talking man from the world of law-enforcement who gave me some copy. Derek Kirkwood is the head of security for the SFA. I did the “grab” I asked him who he was and how the meeting was going. He didn’t hesitate:

“It is a very positive meeting. Hopefully Mr. Ryan will have a greater understanding of the level of work that we in the SFA have, together with others, in combating racism in Scottish football.”

Here was someone in Scottish football that could use the “R” word and not burst into flames-respect.

When the meeting broke up I got the quote I needed from Eoin Ryan.

He made all the right noises and even used the “R” word.

Dave Harmon thought it better that I go file now for the next news day, as the trip to Edinburgh was “just to shake the Minister’s hand”.

It was a good call.

I went and filed my copy to the Irish Post and various Irish titles.

My work done I sent a text Billy Singh to wish him the best with his “work behind the scenes”.

He replied back:

“Rangers fan convicted for singing Famine Song.”

I replied back:

“ Hopefully this is the beginning of the end of this issue. Scotland is better than the Famine Song.”

The next day the Herald was the only Scottish paper that I could find that had any coverage of the visit.

The Herald piece by Robbie Dinwoodie was clearly on message:

“Anti-sectarian campaign backed by MEP”.

Nothing to see here, move along now.

Although I had been assured by young Baskerville that nothing was “being swept under the carpet” it was notable that not a single organisation representing the Irish community in Scotland was present that day in the City Chambers.

Can you imagine, say, a member of the Israeli Knesset visiting a country where there had been a worrying upsurge in anti-Semitism as the guest of that country’s government  to see what the government was doing about the problem and not being introduced to the local Jewish community’s representatives?

That, in contemporary Scotland, is just commonsense.




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