I WANT to start this column with a big thank you to all the National readers, columnists and journalists who sent me good wishes after I announced my intention to take time off to focus on my health. I’m glad to have made a return to public duties.

It seems not much has changed while I’ve been away. It’s business as usual at Holyrood, with another pro-independence majority – albeit with an increase of three seats – and it’s business as usual at Westminster.

The Queen’s Speech reminded us that the UK Tory government’s priorities are miles away from those of most Scots. Their new legislative programme is far removed from what is needed to tackle the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, or to “build back better”. As we saw on Kenmure Street, their policies on immigration and refugees continue to appal and it all takes place against a background of dodgy lobbying, dodgy procurement and flagrant ministerial conflicts of interest.

And so the case for independence is reinforced. But it really is time to put a bit more meat on the bones of what an independent Scotland would look like and to have answers ready for the big questions that not just the media, but voters will quite reasonably ask during a second independence campaign. So I hope that from now on, the independence debate will be more about policy than process.

During the election campaign, the First Minister indicated that the Growth Commission report needs revisited and, that following on Brexit and the pandemic, there is work to be done on the economic case for independence, the timetable for Scotland’s accession to the EU and how we handle cross-border trade with the rest of the UK. I look forward to hearing who the FM will put in charge of getting this work done before the next independence referendum campaign starts and I hope to be able to make a useful contribution.

The death of an otherwise fit and healthy young woman from Covid earlier this week shows that the FM is right to put managing the pandemic and Covid recovery at the top of her list, but there ought to be space for others in the Cabinet to lay the groundwork for indyref2 without further delay.

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That tragic death amidst a spike in the virus in parts of Scotland, including Glasgow, also underlines why, from a public health point of view, it was so completely unacceptable that, for the second time this year, a section of the Rangers fanbase were able to run amok in our second city committing acts of vandalism and violence and abusing their fellow countrymen and women. The police said the violence they witnessed was some of the worst seen in 20 years.

The concern felt is not confined to Glasgow. My inbox was swelled this week with emails from horrified Edinburgh South West constituents and members of the Irish and the Catholic communities from across Scotland who have had enough of being the object of such venomous bile. These correspondents are concerned not just about the scale of the disorder and the fact that it happened in violation of Covid restrictions – again – but also about the foul abuse directed against members of the Irish and the Catholic communities and the vandalism and intimidation that occurred at Catholic churches across the city and beyond.

This behaviour disgraces our country. At a time when Scotland is looking to take its place on the world stage, it is imperative that this bigotry and racism is addressed, particularly as the racism is directed against one of our most important European allies. There is also the risk that Scotland’s reputation will suffer serious damage internationally if this emboldened anti-Catholic hatred seeks to manifest itself during the planned visit of His Holiness Pope Francis to the COP26 summit in Glasgow.

I AM not alone in being struck by the contrast between the policing of these fans and other groups in our society. That contrast is so stark that it is reasonable to ask whether the principle of equality before the law is being respected by Police Scotland.

Earlier this year a woman was visited by police to be warned off after chalking an inoffensive political slogan. Recently, I had brought to my attention the case of another woman who was phoned by police and ordered to present herself at a police station under threat that if she did not do so she would be arrested, and her children taken into care, because someone had taken offence at a tweet. The apparent difference in approach between the policing of these women and the policing of football fans engaging in the foulest and most objectionable abuse of our fellow citizens of Irish and Catholic descent should give any reasonable person pause for thought.

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In the course of the last parliament we heard a lot about the importance of tackling hate crime. Statistics regularly show that the Catholic community bears a disproportionate burden of religiously aggravated hate crime, yet this did not seem to be an issue on which the debate was focused. I hope that will now change.

It was good to see what happened raised in an Urgent Question at Holyrood this week and to note the almost universal disapproval, but the debate was rather brief. Far more light needs to be shone on why the situation in Glasgow last Saturday was allowed to get so out of control, particularly given its foreseeability. We need to know why the police appear to be following a different approach to the policing of women’s speech and the policing of football fans and we need to know what steps the Scottish Government will be taking during this parliament to tackle the specific problems of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry in our society.

As past experience and the failed Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act shows, these problems are not going to be easy to solve. Deep structural change is needed, and I don’t mean getting rid of Catholic schools or any other sort of victim blaming. Yes, poverty and alienation play their part in this story but there’s more to it than that. It’s time to ask why our society tolerates marches by organisations hostile to Catholics, routed past Catholic churches and designed to render parts of our cities and towns no-go areas for Catholics.

I declare an interest as someone who is half-Irish and brought up in the Catholic tradition, but if this behaviour was directed at any other religion or indeed any other minority in our society it would be considered intolerable. It’s time to make the promise of equality real for all.