IT WAS a memorial Sunday four days after Dunblane. There had been a three-minute national silence in the morning for the child victims. Radio stations left the airwaves at peace. Drivers pulled over in respect. Airports and railway stations came to a standstill. Staff stood aside in the aisles of Sunday-opening supermarkets. It was a genuine and heartfelt demonstration of sympathy. People still found it hard to turn their private thoughts from Dunblane.

This unity of shock and grieving dominated everything. The calendar significance of the date - St Patrick's Day - had become secondary. Even that day's Old Firm game, a virtual championship decider, had been put into perspective. At Ibrox, Rangers and Celtic players formed a circle, lined up in alternate colours, heads bowed. ''It was perhaps the most memorable 60 seconds in Old firm history,'' reported The Herald next day. ''A minute when offensive bigotries, tribal hatred, and obscene abuses were set aside in a unique tribute.'' The attendance was 47,312. The silence was ''eerily and movingly perfect, but for the click of cameras''.

Not for long. Rivalries resumed. A competitive game ended in a 1-1 draw. Post-mortems (the sporting cliche too engrained to register irony or insult) were on the ''psychological'' impact of the late equaliser a 10-man Celtic had grabbed. Would it give them a lift for the remaining seven games of the season, three points behind Rangers? The word ''inquest'' was used callously to analyse the game and the league position. Even after Dunblane, what is sometimes euphemistically called the sporting life must go on.

A young Celtic player had been murdered that same weekend. Falkirk police were investigating the death of 15-year-old Lawrence Haggart at the home of his parents in Larbert. He was a member of the Celtic youth team. A #1000 reward was issued. He had been battered to death. He had first been tortured. There were burns, from a gas fire, to his feet and legs. Police were anxious to play down the possibility of a sectarian element in the killing of the former pupil of St Mungo's Secondary, Falkirk. The case was being widely reported.

How much of this background had a direct bearing on events when 34-year-old Celtic fan John McKee walked into the Fox and Hounds public house in Houston that Sunday night remains a matter of surmise. The three-day trial at Paisley Sheriff Court, in which three men stood accused of his assault, brought forward a body of evidence which even the depute-fiscal, Bernard Ablett, was forced to admit in his final submission was largely contradictory. Whatever the exact sequence of events, and whoever exactly was involved, it could not be denied McKee walked into an attack motivated by a sectarianism based on Rangers and Celtic rivalries. The McKee case revealed an ugly microcosm of bigotry.

But it was personalities, rather than the circumstances, which attracted attention. It became ''The Miller Trial'' because one of the defendants was Rangers footballer Charlie Miller, who had played in the Old Firm game that day. Alongside him in the dock, facing the same charges of breach of the peace and assault, was Jimmy ''Five Bellies'' Gardner, a Gateshead friend of Rangers player Paul Gascoigne and his erstwhile bodyguard. The third accused, also from Gateshead, was Steven McDermott.

In bringing a verdict of guilty only against Gardner, for the assault, and dismissing the same charge against Miller, while finding all other charges not proven, Sheriff Bill Dunlop said McKee had to bear ''considerable responsibility''. He evidently accepted the evidence of provocation from McKee. But he also was in little doubt there had been singing of sectarian songs in the Fox and Hounds after McKee entered the premises.

This must be the starting point for an examination of events. McKee, in his evidence on the first day of the trial, claimed he had made a request for a section in the pub to stop singing The Sash. He approached Miller because he recognised him, and believed he might be the most responsible member of the group. The exchange between the two, according to other witnesses, went along the lines of McKee calling Miller an ''Orange bastard'' and Miller calling McKee a ''Fenian Bastard'' (in what sequence was never satisfactorily resolved). One witness, Mrs Jennifer Meighan, the wife of a friend of McKee, described this as ''banter''.

Banter? It would be a sick society that could no longer distinguish between banter and habitual sectarian abuse. The Oxford English Dictionary defines banter as ''humorous ridicule'', ''pleasantry'', or ''good-humoured raillery''. It might be possible to imagine long-established friendships, or good working relationships, which could permit this kind of exchange. There are some circumstances, as with playground racial epithets, where a humorously intended insult, inviting a retort in kind, is entirely (and usually justifiably) misconstrued. It was possible to accept Gardner's statement that he was not particularly upset about being called a ''Fat Geordie bastard'' by McKee, because he had heard this kind of remark often enough. But among strangers, which McKee and Miller were, it is bizarre to suggest they could have been swopping banter. A rendition of the The Sash, an unequivocally sectarian

song, as the court was repeatedly advised, does not convince as an overture to pleasantries.

Several witnesses and Gardner, the sole member of the three accused to testify, had amnesia about The Sash. They didn't know the lyrics, or the implication of the lyrics. They took no offence to The Sash, because it meant nothing to them. Its significance, apparently, escaped them. In this they had found something in common with the staff of the Fox and Hounds. Sheriff Dunlop deplored the fact nothing had been done by staff to stop The Sash being sung. He also found it ''inconceivable'' no staff witness had come forward. They had evidently heard or seen nothing of the incident that took place in an assault which involved up to a dozen assailants, a fact supported by security video evidence.

''And the bar staff never saw anything?'' depute-fiscal Ablett had asked witness Constable Andrew Whittington. ''No.'' ''They must have been looking in the other direction?'' ''Yes''. This was accompanied by knowing smirks between fiscal and witness. ''There seems to be a reluctance on the part of bar staff to say anything?'' asked solicitor Jim Peacock (defending Miller) in cross-examination of the same witness. ''That would be my impression,'' replied Constable Whittington. There were four bar staff. No names had been taken. No formal statements had been obtained.

The implications were manifest. Were we being knowingly told, by the depute-fiscal and his witness, the Fox and Hounds was a Rangers pub and it was naive to imagine a witness would give a statement when a Rangers player, and others with Rangers connections, stood accused? Was this further being led as an insinuation that, regardless of his involvement, Miller might find himself the fortunate beneficiary of the obliviousness of witnesses? As an illustration of procedure Mr Ablett's interrogative statements raised eyebrows when the case was reported.

However, it would be fatuous to pretend there does not exist in Glasgow and beyond a demarcation of Rangers and Celtic pubs, with unwritten codes of which all but the most innocent would be aware. The implication surrounding McKee was that, far from an innocent, but a man who admitted to the court to having been barred previously from local pubs for his behaviour, and who admitted previous convictions for assault and breach of the peace, he had expressly entered the Fox And Hounds to challenge its unwritten codes. Bearing in mind Sheriff Dunlop's remarks about McKee, he was easy to present as a man who had come looking for trouble, and got more than he bargained for. This was how Mr Peacock portrayed him in a final submission described as ''cogent'' by the sheriff.

Not that this would provide any defence. Gardner was found guilty of assault, and fined #500, for striking McKee with a single blow under provocation. Sheriff Dunlop, rightly, saw Gardner's action as guaranteed to inflame the situation into the fracas that ensued, with boots going in and bar stools crashing over McKee's head. The video evidence, and statements of those witnesses the Crown was able to assemble, was insufficient to give further identifications.

McKee's performance as a witness, particularly his fantasy over the loss of a major portion of his nose, and the frantic effort to pack some of his missing flesh in ice, none of which was supported by prosaic medical evidence of bruising and grazing, exposed him to ridicule. Mr Ablett was forced to refute the suggestion McKee, and other witnesses, were motivated by bigotry to make their allegations. They would have implicated other Rangers players, he argued.

When the sectarian cancer begins, the denunciations are ready. When Mr Peacock asked McKee directly if he was a bigot, the press gallery resounded with the unsolicited information that Peacock was a ''bluenose'' as a Rangers FC season ticket holder and shareholder. ''If I was a bigot I would be a liability to my client,'' he responded outside court. ''I would be reflecting bigoted views by any definition and which would be unacceptable to the court. That would be the height of folly. I would be unable to argue objectively in the midst of exaggeration, emotion, and downright lies.''

Mr Peacock has previously represented Rangers people from former board member Jack Gillespie and manager walter Smith to players Ally McCoist, Andy Goram, and Alexei Mikhailichenko. He has never represented anyone connected with Celtic. ''I have never been asked,'' he responded. ''I have a job as a lawyer and if a Celtic player or official asked me to represent them, they would have the same rights. I don't see any difficulty. What I do privately has nothing to do with what I do professionally.'' Given the effectiveness of Mr Peacock's professionalism in the three days of the trial, this is self-evident.

Neither was there any question of uniform partisanship among the three defence lawyers. Denis Coffield, the solicitor representing Gardner, confirmed he was a Celtic season ticket holder. After the trial he admitted he had watched the March 17 Old Firm game on television. ''I wept at home,'' he recalled. ''It didn't mean I went out looking to assault someone.'' His defence of Gardner was that McKee threw the first punch, and received another from his client in self-defence.

From the second day there had been considerable doubt over the quality of Crown evidence, and Sheriff Dunlop's verdict was undoubtedly a fair weighing-up of what had been heard over the three days. There was severity in the #500 fine imposed on Gardner. He expressed mild incredulity over Gardner's claims to have no money, no assets, and no car. He was on #96 a fortnight in benefits. This prompted the sheriff's remark: ''Despite his famous associations.'' Gardner emerged as the pathetic member of the trio. His high-profile status, courtesy of Gascoigne, had made him instantly identified by witnesses. But he had nothing to show for his fame, except a ride to an earlier part of the proceedings in a battered Rolls Royce. Now he required three months to pay his fine.

Gardner's involvement in the fracas might have been significant. He was in company with a group who had travelled to the game from Newcastle. There was a sense in which the incident that arose was sectarianism for the tourists. This is unlikely to gain much of an endorsement from the Scottish Tourist Board. Or from the multi-million businesses Rangers FC and Celtic FC have become. Sheriff Dunlop's remarks to Miller were well calculated. Although the poor quality of evidence entitled him to a verdict of not proven on the breach of the peace charge, there was no doubt in the sheriff's mind Miller had become involved in a ''bad-tempered argument''. He added that Miller's ''behaviour will not find favour with his employers''.

Much has been said about the threat to native footballing talent from the trend of Rangers and Celtic signing players from abroad. Little has been said about the potential damage to the two clubs' business investments by employing young players brought up in a sectarian culture that once might have swollen the terracings but is now an embarrassment.