Nicola Sturgeon has accused Rangers of not doing “nearly enough” to deter fans from publicly celebrating their title victory, in an escalation of the extraordinary war of words between her administration and the football club.
Speaking at Holyrood on Tuesday, the First Minister said she shared the “anger and despair” of the public at the “disgraceful and selfish” mass gatherings seen in Glasgow over the weekend. She claimed “certain football clubs” need to “show much more leadership”.
Her comments came shortly after a furious rebuttal from Rangers, in which the club hit out at “totally inaccurate” comments from SNP ministers and accused Ms Sturgeon of showing lack of leadership by failing to engage with the club directly. Rangers’ Ibrox stadium is in Ms Sturgeon’s Glasgow constituency.
In a letter to the First Minister, Douglas Park, the Rangers chairman, said the club was “at a loss” for what more it could have done to prevent the chaos. He listed several instances in which management “proactively initiated engagement” with Police Scotland, the SPFL, Scottish Government and Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf.
Hitting back at John Swinney’s comments on Monday, in which he accused Rangers of deafening silence over the wild celebrations, Mr Park said Ms Sturgeon’s deputy had “failed to mention a wide range of other public gatherings that you did not take such a strong line on”.
SNP ministers were more measured in their criticism of anti-racism demonstrations that took place in Scotland in the summer.
“It is particularly disappointing that there has been a lack of acknowledgement from the Scottish Government to the wide range of efforts we undertook to limit public safety issues,” Mr Park said.
This, Mr Park said, leaves Ms Sturgeon “open to the criticism that there is an unbalanced approach from the Scottish Government when it comes to Rangers Football Club”.
Mr Park also accused the First Minister of having “failed as a constituency MSP” to “engage with us directly” on the matter, which he said shows “a lack of leadership and a dereliction of duty”.
However, Ms Sturgeon insisted that she doesn’t “care about the colour of the shirts”, and pointed out that she had previously “said some harsh things about Celtic at the start of this year”.
She told MSPs: “As far as I am concerned in this case, Rangers Football Club did not do nearly enough to help avoid this situation arising at the weekend.”
Ms Sturgeon added that she would be speaking with Police Scotland’s Chief Constable later that day to avoid a similar situation in future.
It comes after Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham defended the police against widespread criticism of the force’s failure to take stronger action against the flagrant law-breaking seen over the weekend, and “strongly” condemned Rangers for failing to issue the “messages we repeatedly asked them to put out” asking fans to stay home or disperse.
In an extraordinary intervention on Monday evening, he said it was “very clear” the club “did not take seriously their responsibilities” in terms of seeking to persuade their fans to celebrate safely and responsibly.
But Rangers have since written to Police Scotland expressing “exasperation” at these comments, adding: “We cannot understand that after police intelligence clearly highlighting that a celebratory crowd would gather, street furniture was not removed as is standard practice.”
However, a Glasgow City Council spokesperson said it is “not standard practice” to remove street furniture in George Square, adding: “In particular, it is not standard practice to remove memorial benches as the vast, vast majority of people are possessed of sufficient human decency to not vandalise them.”
Police made 28 arrests and seven people were issued with fixed penalty notices or will be reported to the procurator fiscal, despite thousands gathering in contravention of lockdown rules.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s top police officer has asked a leading lawyer to scrutinise the force’s handling of the unlawful celebrations as part of the Independent Advisory Group (IAG), which looks at the police’s handling of coronavirus powers.
John Scott QC, who was commissioned last April to independently scrutinise policing during the pandemic, will consider the events of the weekend at the next scheduled IAG meeting on March 12.
Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said: “Across the weekend, thousands of Rangers supporters in Glasgow participated in spontaneous and intense mass gatherings. This should not have happened given the continuing public health crisis.
“Experienced officers, highly skilled in public order management, took appropriate steps to manage these challenging circumstances to protect people and minimise disruption to communities.”
He added: “I’ve been clear from the beginning of this pandemic that the strong relationship of trust policing has with our communities, underpinned by the principle of policing by consent, would be vital to the critical role officers and staff play in supporting the public health imperative.”