Brian Quinn has given his backing to Rangers' self-policing initiative to eradicate sectarianism away from home, with the Celtic chairman declaring his club's sustained efforts a resounding success.
Quinn has long abhorred the historic baggage carried by the Old Firm but in an exclusive interview with The Herald, the former deputy governor of the Bank of England describes the experience of following Celtic after more than 60 years as unrecognisable from his childhood recollections.
Celtic's problem in tackling sectarianism is in defining the problem. While Rangers have intensified a long-running campaign to eradicate what Sir David Murray has described as the FTP brigade' within the support, Celtic's most recent concern has been removing the element who sing songs glorifying the IRA, predominantly at away venues.
Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, has bristled at what he perceives to be a media-driven misconception about the club's problem, more politically motivated than sectarian fuelled. None the less, Quinn has vowed not to relax Celtic's efforts to obliterate "objectionable behaviour" and offered his endorsement of Rangers' approach.
"I want to make it clear there has been a vast improvement in the behaviour of the Celtic supporters and I speak for the board when I say that I am immensely proud of that improvement," he said yesterday. "The fans have shown they are capable of listening and carrying forward the message and enforcing it. It is a success for the supporters themselves but we have to keep on top of it all the time.
"It would please me if Rangers were able to achieve the same level of success in their initiatives as we have. It is not pleasant going to games and hearing some of the things shouted.
"Some of the things I have heard from the opposing fans are a disgrace and Rangers' management have said as much, so I am only saying the same thing as they are. There can be rivalry without being objectionable, passionate without being offensive and I genuinely wish Rangers well."
Self-policing has been implemented at away games after meetings between the board and the Celtic Supporters Association. Bhoys Against Bigotry and Sense Over Sectarianism have been successful in eradicating offensive chanting almost exclusively from Parkhead.
"There was a time when fans would have been reluctant to show displeasure at people conducting themselves objectionably but we now have a successful system of self policing," said Quinn. "It has been appreciable in the past five years and this is from eye witness accounts and not just assessment.
"William Gaillard UEFA's head of communications came over five months ago and at a dinner with me, David Taylor and Peter Lawwell said Scotland was a model, a benchmark. We have appeals and have our own stewards present at away games, while the supporters associations do great work. Will sectarianism be eradicated totally? We want to achieve constant improvement, not the impossible. There is no point in setting targets of removing sectarianism entirely. We are only a football club and that is a social issue. Hopefully we can be responsible for a meaningful reduction."
While Rangers have successfully removed the Billy Boys from their Ibrox song book, they remain at the mercy of UEFA after an outbreak of sectarian singing before their UEFA Cup tie with Osasuna, followed by chaotic scenes involving Spanish police.
In a game fuelled by rivalry and one-upmanship, Celtic can boast commendation from both UEFA and FIFA for their supporters' behaviour on the road to Seville in 2003. The crudity of grouping together the Old Firm's problems with discriminatory and bigoted chanting has chastened many Celtic fans but Quinn has defended his decision not to outline a prohibited list.
The Boys of the Old Brigade, telling the story of the Easter Rising in 1916, continues to be heard in away grounds, along with the Fighting Men of Crossmaglen. Celtic's instruction to fans to desist from singing the Wolfe Tones' Celtic Symphony even evoked an extensive letter of complaint from its author, Brian Warfield, in which he began, "I'm appalled at the policy of Celtic in the manner in which you have attacked the song traditions of Ireland".
In a historic week in which Gerry Adams and Rev Ian Paisley shared a table, Quinn continues to be aware of the political sensitivities but sees no place for it within the confines of a football club.
"They may be politically oriented songs but I have said before we are not a political organisation," said Quinn. "We are a Scottish team proud of our Irish origins but singing about politically historic events and associations has no place in a football stadium.
"I have heard Fields of Athenry be called sectarian because it is sung at a football game. If there is anything offensive to anyone we will discourage it. The Boys of the Old Brigade, I believe, is in support to a political event and objective. Again, if it is political intent it has no place here because we are not that kind of organisation.
"I have said before guidelines split opinion. It depends who's listening. People take offence at a Tina Turner song, but only because the words are changed. Where do you draw a line? I don't think telling fans which songs are in or out will help greatly."
Nonetheless, he has noted an improvement in the conduct of the problematic away crowd in the past 12 months. "I was at Falkirk a few weeks ago and there was not a cheep, not a single noise," he said.
"I would say it has improved even in the last 12 months and that's because we have had a determined effort in that year. I have written open letters and Peter Lawwell has appealed in public.
"I attend around 10 matches a year in England and the shouting there is a lot more offensive than anything up here. I was at the Emirates Stadium listening to Arsenal fans signing Shoot the Yids' and Gas Them All' to the tune of Bless Them All at Tottenham's Jewish supporters. That's worse and more offensive than anything I have heard at an Old Firm game recently.
"I started supporting Celtic at six and the behaviour is unrecognisable. I remember having to run for cover at the front terraces of Ibrox and Parkhead. It was absolutely awful. There has been a real improvement in the last decade."
The reputation of Celtic fans was blotted this week when UEFA fined the club £420 for throwing plastic bottles at the pitch in the Champions League tie against AC Milan at the San Siro, although Quinn said: "We haven't yet accepted there is evidence to show the Celtic fans are guilty. If our fans did throw empty plastic bottles then it is irritating because we have worked so hard.
"The UEFA and FIFA awards were signals of our achievement but we will not be complacent. The test is that we are welcomed anywhere we travel."