FORMER First Minister Lord Jack McConnell has offered to work hand in hand with Nicola Sturgeon to stamp out sectarianism once and for all.

His calls to rid Scotland of the "cancer" of religious bigotry come after loyalist counter-protesters clashed with police in violent riots in Glasgow this weekend.

They were aiming to counter an Irish unity march organised by republicans.

Lord McConnell, who introduced pioneering measures to tackle sectarianism during his time as First Minister, said the government had "taken its foot off the pedal" and deprioritised programmes aimed at reducing religious hatred.

Following the violent clashes in Govan on Friday night and ahead of today's Old Firm game at Ibrox, he has made a public offer to work with anyone willing to take on the issue of hatred.

The former First Minister told The Herald on Sunday: "Sectarianism is a cancer, and if you don't kill off a cancer it comes back. The decisions in 2007 to end the summits and kill off the national programme of action have led directly to where we are today.

"The behaviour at football grounds and on the streets this year brings shame to Scotland, and it disgusts decent people.

"Ending religious bigotry needs consistent, strong political leadership and I am really angry that the decision to take the foot off the pedal in 2007 has led to this.

"However, although I am angry, I am willing to work with anybody to kill of sectarianism. If Nicola sturgeon is prepared to work with me and others to revitalise a national programme of action against bigotry then I will be first in the queue to say yes. We all need to pull together to put sectarianism in the dustbin of history and I will not hesitate to work with the First Minister if she wants to reach out and do that."

Lord McConnell gave a landmark speech in 2002, describing sectarianism as "Scotland's secret shame", and set up summits between football clubs, religious leaders, police and government officials to tackle it.

He admitted at the time he felt strongly about the issue as a member of a Church of Scotland family, who had married into a Catholic family. He also revealed he had personal experience of religious bigotry after moving to Lanarkshire.

Under his leadership, Protestant and Catholic school pupils started mixing on joint campuses, and for the first time in Scottish history a cardinal and the Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland came together under one roof.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien and Ian Wilson, the Most Worthy Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, joined 21 representatives from Scottish media organisations, the police, Rangers and Celtic football clubs, sectarianism charities and local authorities on Valentines' Day 2005 for the first summit on sectarianism.

Progress had been made with marching organisations too, with leaders from both sides, as well a the police, signing up to a voluntary code of conduct agreeing how marchers should behave in an attempt to reduce violence.

A second summit to update on the progress was held in late 2006, but by 2007 Lord McConnell's role as first minister was over.

He was replaced by Alex Salmond, who, according to McConnell, scrapped the summits and put an end to much of the progress made.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "Sectarianism is a long-standing social ill which cannot be resolved overnight.

“The repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 sent entirely the wrong signal.‎ This legislation was designed to tackle sectarianism, and other pernicious social issues, and was repealed in its entirety with little thought for the impact this could have.

“The Scottish Government has invested more than £14 million in work tackling sectarianism across Scotland over the last 12 years. Our unprecedented investment has supported more than 100 anti-sectarianism projects such as Sense Over Sectarianism and Nil by Mouth, working in schools, communities and workplaces.

“The Scottish Government works with a wide range of interests on this matter and Ministers have made clear that they would welcome constructive proposals from wherever they come, including across the Parliament.”

This weekend's violent clashes are not the first time such public displays of religious hatred have come to the fore in recent years.

On July 7 last year Canon Thomas White was spat on and verbally abused outside his church by marchers taking part in the annual Boyne Parade.

As the priest waived off parishioners leaving the Sunday service, Bradley Wallace spat on him.

Wallace, 24, from Uddingston was later sentenced at Glasgow Sheriff Court to 10 months in prison for the crime, which was ruled to be motivated by religious prejudice.