A Catholic shrine in Scotland has become the focus of a political row and has cost a member of parliament (MP) his job with the British government.

The MP, Frank Roy, advised Ireland's Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, not to visit a Marian shrine near Glasgow because he feared sectarian disturbances. Ahern, who accepted the advice, was scheduled to unveil a new memorial at the shrine, Carfin Grotto, on February 11 to victims of the 19th-century Irish potato famine.

The event was to have taken place on the same day as a football match between Glasgow's two main football teams, Celtic and Rangers. In the past matches between the two teams have sometimes triggered violence between the mainly Protestant supporters of Rangers and the mainly Catholic supporters of Celtic. However on 11 February the match was won 1-0 by Celtic, and passed off without serious incident.

Roy, who was parliamentary private secretary to Britain's Scottish secretary Helen Liddell, bolstered his letter to the Irish prime minister by mentioning her name, and that of her predecessor, John Reid, who is now Northern Ireland secretary.

The inclusion of the two ministers is thought to have influenced the Irish premier's decision to stay away from the shrine. But both ministers have denied having anything to do with the letter.

Roy, in whose constituency the Marian shrine is located, said in his resignation letter: "If I had not highlighted my concerns about the timing of the visit, I would not have been fulfilling my duty to the people who elected me."

However, two senior figures at Carfin Grotto told ENI that the Marian shrine had no history of sectarian disturbances. Frank McAleese, a priest ministering at the shrine, said when asked about sectarian trouble: "Never. No."

Frank Devlin, the shrine's manager, recalled a single incident 15 years ago when an individual did some damage. He added that of 20 young men currently on a training project at the site working on landscaping and the gardens, 16 were Protestant.

The shrine, built in the 1920s by unemployed miners, includes a replica of the Lourdes grotto and attracts about 70,000 visitors a year. McAleese said the shrine drew fewer visitors than in the 1950s and 1960s "because of the decline of interest in things religious."

Devlin told ENI that the memorial had been left unveiled. It was hoped, he said, that Ahern would come at a later date to perform the ceremony.

Political analysts questioned whether there was a deeper dimension to the affair than the announcement of Roy's resignation suggested. The Times reported the opinion of George Galloway, a Labor Party MP who said that in the present climate in Glasgow, government figures did not want to be photographed with the Irish prime minister on the day of the Celtic-Rangers football match. "A bunfight with cardinals and bishops and the Irish prime minister with Catholic Scottish ministers would have been too much," Galloway said.

Related Elsewhere:

Other media coverage of Roy's resignation includes:

Scots will ask Ahern to visitThe Times (Feb. 18, 2001)

McLeish wants Ahern to address HolyroodThe Times (Feb. 18, 2001)

Murphy appointed aide to Liddell — BBC (Feb. 17, 2001)

The awful truth about tartanThe Guardian (Feb. 16, 2001)