Why Celtic fans won’t join in the poppy parade

The poppy is a political symbol. So why are players and fans being told to conform with the idea of wearing one?

Kevin Rooney

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Anyone who knows the history and traditions of Celtic Football Club would not have been too surprised to see a group of fans unfurling a huge anti-war banner at the team’s ground last Saturday.

The banner, which read, ‘Your deeds they would shame all the devils in hell. Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No blood-stained poppy on our hoops’, was a protest against the club’s decision to mark Remembrance Day by getting the players to wear poppies on their famous green and white hooped jerseys and hold a minute’s silence before the game.

However the club’s reaction to the protesters shows just how far Celtic’s anti-establishment roots have been officially ditched by those running it. John Reid, club chairman and former Labour home secretary, has pledged to ‘hunt down’ this ‘hate-mob’ and ban them from Celtic Park for life. Others have described the protesting fans as ‘shameful yobs and louts’ and one MP, Gregory Campbell, has argued the club needs to go further to ‘lance this boil’.

The demonisation and vilification of a group of people who staged a peaceful political protest would be shocking in any circumstances, but it is even more so at Celtic. To many Celtic fans, the history and ethos of the club is not only Irish, but is also closely linked to the struggle against British rule and militarism in Ireland. The club’s origins can be traced to post-famine Ireland when it was founded in 1888 by the immigrant Irish priest, Brother Walfred, to raise money to feed the often-destitute Irish of Glasgow’s east end. These overwhelmingly Catholic Irish suffered not only poverty but widespread discrimination. The sod of turf that sits in the centre circle of Celtic Park was planted by Michael Davitt, himself a famous Irish Republican activist who fought against British rule in Ireland.


The protest banner at Celtic Park

Throughout the 30 years of the conflict in Northern Ireland, from the late 60s to the late 90s, a significant section of Celtic fans openly supported – or at least quietly sympathised with – the IRA and Celtic games featured more Irish rebel songs than football chants. While all football derbies arouse strong passions, Celtic-Rangers games during the ‘Troubles’ were famously tense with boat loads of hard-line loyalists and republicans arriving from Belfast to play out their political enmities on the terraces.

Of course, all of this has changed as the peace process has brought violent conflict in Ireland to an end and seen republicans and loyalists sharing power. A new generation of homegrown Celtic fans don’t mix politics and football in the way their parents did, and for many of these fans wearing a poppy is no more political than wearing a pink ribbon in support of those who have fought breast cancer or a red ribbon to remember the problem of HIV/AIDS.

But there remain a significant group of Celtic fans for whom the poppy does have meaning. For them, the officially sanctioned Remembrance Day and the wearing of the poppy represent the glorification of imperialist wars in which tens of thousands of young men were sent to their deaths by political leaders intent on defending Britain’s dominant position in the world. No one watching Remembrance Sunday on television every year can be in any doubt that the laying of wreaths by the royal family, alongside the presence of the country’s political leaders and the military top brass, mixes remembering the dead with an official display of support for Britain’s military adventures abroad – past and present.

But whether you make a personal decision to wear a poppy or not is not the issue here. Celtic fans know to their cost that the clampdown on fans unfurling a banner is only the latest in a long series of restrictions on any expressions of political opinions by fans. Under the guise of campaigns against sectarianism and to ‘kick racism out of football’, Celtic fans have already faced a bewildering barrage of bans and rules proscribing what they can say, sing or chant before, during and after watching their team. Yet the same club that has done so much to cleanse Celtic of any whiff of politics has now chosen to bring politics onto the pitch by telling players and fans to observe the official commemoration of the UK’s war dead and wear a poppy on their jerseys.

The latest controversy is less about the poppy than the degrading illiberal treatment meted out to a section of football fans for daring to challenge the football hierarchy. For more than 80 years the poppy and football were separate. Now, when the football authorities decide to mix politics with football, those fans who object are vilified and banned. Anyone who cares about civil liberties and freedom of speech should be extremely alarmed by the attack on both by those running football in Scotland.

Jon Snow, Channel 4 news broadcaster, has been mocked this week for re-staging his annual outburst against ‘poppy fascism’ in protest at the pressure put on TV presenters to wear a poppy. (Snow is on shaky ground having made a song-and-dance about his right to wear a white wristband in support of Make Poverty History back in 2005, with the implication that others should be doing the same.) But I think Snow reacts every year not for effect but because each year the expectation to conform seems to spread. As well as poppies at football games, this year for the first time the traffic lights in central London will stay on red for several minutes and busy Londoners will be asked to stay quiet and still as a section of the city grinds to a halt.

Many people who wear poppies do so as a genuine sign of respect and gratitude to those who sacrificed everything for the greater good while many others wear it as an open expression of support for Britain’s armed forces. There are also people who wear the poppy simply because they are expected to. But some of us refuse to wear a poppy on principle because we don’t support Britain’s military adventures past or present and choose to remember those who died in wars in ways and at times of our own choosing. Whichever position you take, the poppy is a political emblem and it diminishes politics and our political opinions to pretend otherwise.

We are repeatedly told on Remembrance Sunday that those who have fallen gave their lives that we should be free – sadly that freedom has been denied to those fans who expressed their opinions at Celtic Park last week.

Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.

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