IT’S just like being back at home when we were kids, my wife said. Rioting. Loyalists and republicans on the streets. Police tooled up. Smoke bombs. Fires. Helicopters. Dogs. People hiding behind their doors.

On Friday night, Govan in Glasgow, where my wife works as a teacher, bore uncomfortable similarities to Northern Ireland during the 1980s, as police stepped in between Irish republican marchers and loyalist counter-demonstrators. Of course, there were no guns – but the festering Ulster-style hatred was there for all to see.

When my wife and I came to Scotland from Northern Ireland nearly 25 years ago, it was to escape sectarianism and raise our children in a normal environment. Some people laughed that we were moving to Glasgow, with its Catholic-Protestant divide. But the problems here seemed nothing compared to the hatred back home. Here it all seemed tied to football, and Rangers and Celtic. The domain of the Old Firm’s 90-minute bigots in an otherwise decent country.

READ MORE: Two men arrested after trouble at Irish unity march causes riot scenes in Glasgow 

And Scotland seemed to be doing something about the problem. The anti-sectarian charity Nil By Mouth was set up in response to the sectarian murder of a young Celtic supporter. The newly devolved parliament treated sectarianism as ‘Scotland’s shame’. I felt proud of my new home. Scotland seemed prepared to work as hard as it could to tackle the problem.

But today, the momentum has evaporated. Sectarianism remains a blight on this country. Little has changed. Most dangerously, we’ve taken our eye off this problem at the same time as the constitutional splits in society threaten to exploit sectarianism. It doesn’t take a genius to see how a Catholic-Protestant divide could bleed over into both the independence and Brexit debates.

The rioting in Govan is the canary in the coal-mine. We need to heed its warning. This nation needs to take a long, hard, proper look at itself when it comes to sectarianism, before it’s too late, and learn some salutary lessons, because we have self-evidently failed in dealing with this problem.

The first lesson is that we need to acknowledge that all marching is by its nature offensive to someone. A republican march will offend loyalists. An Orange march will offend Catholics. Marching is a way of saying ‘these streets are my streets’ – and understandably many on the opposite side don’t like that.

In a free society, though, no matter how many people might be offended by a march, as long as the marchers conduct themselves in a lawful way they should have the right to demonstrate.

However, if marches aren’t conducted peacefully, then any future march, by the same marchers and organisers, should quite simply be banned. Courts should be punitive against law-breakers.

READ MORE: Republican group promise 'fightback' against loyalists after Govan riots 

We also need to ask whether most marches need to go past the homes of ordinary people. Groups have the right to march and countermarch – but the rest of us have the right not to be subjected to harassment or intimidation. Areas can be found where people can exercise their rights with responsibility.

Secondly, Scotland needs to look at this as a national problem. There’s a sense of Scottish exceptionalism when sectarianism raises its head. People outside Glasgow say it’s a Glasgow problem – nothing to do with the rest of Scotland. People from Glasgow say it’s a Rangers and Celtic problem – nothing to do with the rest of the city. It’s such a cowardly attempt to avoid facing up to the fact that this country as a whole has a severe problem full stop, and we all need to tackle it together.

Thirdly, the Scottish government needs to focus its mind. It’s hard not to agree with former First Minister Jack McConnell when he accuses the SNP of taking “its foot off the pedal”. In office, McConnell set up summits between football clubs, religious leaders, police and government over sectarianism.

After Labour lost power, McConnell believes the SNP deprioritised programmes aimed at tackling sectarianism. He says: “The decisions in 2007 to end the summits and kill off the national programme of action have led directly to where we are today.”

Politicians need to unite around tackling sectarianism as a national goal. Get every interested party together, set up task forces, use every carrot and stick – but start doing something. Words aren’t enough. Saying ‘this shames Scotland’ is no longer adequate. Everything should be discussed – the Old Firm, the Orange Order, Catholic schooling. Nothing can be off the table.

Fourthly, sectarianism needs to be seen on the same level as racism and homophobia – otherwise it will never be tackled. As a society, we’ve stopped making homophobic jokes or being too scared to stand up to racists. There’s nothing funny about sectarianism. Nor should vested interests or powerful groups be able to silence voices which speak out against sectarianism.

Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser once said: “Rangers 5 Celtic 4 – The Queen's 11 deliver Her Majesty the perfect Birthday present.” It would be a start if that kind of nonsense was consigned to the past.

Fifthly, we need to think about the marchers themselves. Marchers on both sides are spoken of as ‘scum’ by many ordinary folk. It’s difficult not to share feelings of disgust at the aggression and hatred. But pause a moment and think – why would someone want to come on to the streets of Scotland and riot over a centuries old conflict in Ireland?

Perhaps they’ve nothing else? In Northern Ireland, it’s now part of the conversation to look at the young men who’d fight to prevent a bonfire being dismantled and realise: this is all he has. He’s got nothing else. The perpetrators of sectarianism are often its victims. Raised by bigots. Fed hatred from the crib.

And sure, there are plenty of bigots in suits – but they’re not the ones on the streets. The ones on the streets come from our poorest homes, have the worst education, the fewest life chances. In a society where you’re seen as nothing, looking down on the ‘other’ – whether Catholic or Protestant – might be all you have.

No number of sectarian summits will get to the root of the problem unless we acknowledge that the greatest festering sore in this country is poverty. Poverty of hope, of self-belief, of aspiration. Poverty breeds all our other evils.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year