THE celebrated composer James MacMillan has become embroiled in fresh controversy after suggesting that sectarianism in Scotland has prevented Celtic fans who are Catholic from celebrating their Irish heritage.

MacMillan, who caused a furore in 1999 when he said anti-Catholic discrimination made him "embarrassed" by Scotland, also questioned why Celtic supporters were not free to sing republican songs on the streets of Glasgow.

He claimed that while Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims were free to celebrate their cultural roots, underlying anti-Catholic bigotry in Scottish society had made Catholics feel "ashamed" of their background. He said there "should be no shame among Celtic fans for our roots".

Recalling a visit to Birmingham a few years ago, MacMillan said he had come across a multicultural street festival.

The differences between the freedom that Irish Catholics felt in that city, he said, contrasted starkly with the "great cringe factor" that they were made to feel in Glasgow.

He said: "There were Sikh dancers, Hindu marchers and Islamic singers. I heard an Irish band strike up Sean South Of Garryowen, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I would never have seen or heard that in Glasgow. I began to ask myself why."

He added: "There should be no shame among Celtic fans for our roots at all. But the one immigrant community that has not been celebrated [in Scotland] is the Catholic community. There are deep questions to be asked why that is so."

The song MacMillan refers to is one of the most famous but controversial Irish ballads.

It retells the story of a doomed attack by volunteers on a British post at Brookeborough in Northern Ireland in 1956. In a reference to past leaders of the Irish Republican movement, the song's lyrics include the lines: "He has gone to join that gallant band of Plunkett, Pearse and Tone/Another martyr for old Ireland, Sean South of Garryowen."

MacMillan's suggestion that anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland had forced Celtic fans to feel shame comes after his outspoken attack during a lecture on Catholic discrimination - entitled Scotland's Shame - at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999.

The internationally acclaimed musician used the platform to condemn Scotland for "sleepwalking bigotry".

He claimed anti-Catholicism was holding back progress in making Scotland a pluralist democracy and said that the country's estimated 800,000strong Catholic community was sidelined and trivialised.

His latest outburst comes as controversy rages over the extent of sectarianism in Scotland. Last month First Minister Jack McConnell held the first summit on the issue as a step towards banishing what he also called "Scotland's shame".

The meeting in Glasgow brought together leading representatives from 40 of Scotland's most influential organisations including churches, sport, business, media and government.

The influence of the Old Firm football clubs was also questioned earlier this month in a BBC Panorama investigation.

It led Rangers chairman David Murray to say last week:

"There is simply no place in Ibrox any longer for the FTP brigade and those who would have us wading through Fenian blood."

Referring to anti-Catholic sentiment in wider Scottish society, MacMillan said many Catholics of Irish origin were made to feel afraid of celebrating their background.

"Even today, when people of our background are being forced to ask questions about that upbringing and to be made to feel ashamed about it I think is ridiculous, " he said.

"I know there was a great 'cringe' factor among Irish Catholic families over the years;

Celtic supporters of a certain generation who have lived in Scotland with the idea of keeping their heads down to get on.

"It is only fear that has made people feel like that. It is important to get the questions out into the open."

MacMillan aired his views in a St Patrick's night debate on sectarianism on the TV channel run by Celtic Football Club.

In a reference to anti-Catholic bigotry, MacMillan said: "If Scots are embarrassed by the real pattern of sectarianism then expect to do something about it. The world is watching us and that is a sign to all of us to buck up our ideas."

Last night, prominent Scottish Catholics sympathised with the fight against sectarianism but condemned the singing of republican songs.

Owen Dudley Edwards, a historian at the University of Edinburgh who has written on the 1916 Easter Rising, said: "I think James MacMillan has overdone it completely. Sectarianism in Scotland is dying out.

If he's saying Catholics should be able to sing pro-IRA songs, he's taking Catholics deeper and deeper into this orgy of hatred that is sectarianism."

Tom Devine, professor of Irish and Scottish Studies at Aberdeen University, said there was "a degree of exaggeration" in MacMillan's assessment.

He added: "I don't think there is anything wrong with singing songs about the old days, which are about Irish freedom and freedom fighting. What I do have problems with is when these songs are in praise of the PIRA or the modern IRA.

"But the problem is that the ordinary man on the street cannot distinguish between the two. Irishness is still controversial in Scotland."