Singing freely across the Old Firm divide
Both Celtic and Rangers fans need to come together to oppose the Scottish government’s sectarianism bill.
Last Saturday, two speakers from Take a Liberty (Scotland), myself and Kevin Rooney, took part in parallel events in Glasgow. Our aim was clear: to challenge the Scottish government’s free-speech-defying attempt to turn the singing of sectarian songs or the shouting of sectarian insults at football matches into criminal offences.
The ostensible reason for these events, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, is principally directed at the fans of Glasgow’s two big football clubs, Rangers and Celtic. So, whereas I spoke at an event organised at Rangers Football Club’s home, Ibrox Stadium, Rooney spoke at the one organised by Celtic Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC). The very different ways in which the two events unfolded offered an important insight into the state of the debate.
Our intention in speaking at the two events was to put the case for free speech in football. We aimed to argue with the respective sets of fans about why they should openly oppose the criminalisation of their ‘enemy’s’ songs. So I explained to the 80 or so Rangers fans at Ibrox that my colleague was at that moment standing in front of a group of Celtic supporters arguing that they needed to defend the right of Rangers fans to sing about being ‘up to their knees in Fenian blood’. Understandably, my audience could see the funny side of this. However, I then argued that Rangers fans would have to accept the right of Celtic fans to sing ‘Up the ‘RA’.
The Rangers fans, unsurprisingly, found this second point less humorous, but they understood why it was being made: free speech involves tolerating not just the speech you like, but the speech you hate, too. At the end of the meeting, I asked if we could have a vote. Of the 85 people present, only five voted in favour of criminalising some songs (clearly they meant Celtic songs, not their own). The rest of the audience backed the notion that fans should be free to sing whatever they like (even if it was offensive) without threat of arrest or imprisonment.
Worryingly, for all those interested in defending free speech and developing a joint campaign against the Bill, there appears to have been a campaign orchestrated to disrupt the Celtic FAC event in Dennistoun. This involved unfounded rumours being spread online that the FAC event was in fact an IRA event. Subsequently people started to telephone the council and the school where the event was taking place – actions which could have led to its cancellation. These rumours not only created serious tension among the organisers of the Celtic event, but prompted around 40 Rangers fans to turn up at the meeting.
The presence of the Rangers fans nearly had the desired effect. First women and children, fearing a mass brawl was about to break out, left the meeting. And, just to further fan the flames, the police turned up. But despite this attempt to intimidate those who came for a debate, the Celtic Trust chair Jeanette Findlay, to her credit, kept the police out of the meeting and decided that the event must go ahead.
The result, as you can imagine, was explosive. Rooney, a Belfast-born Irish Republican sympathiser, stood up and gave a powerful speech about why, despite the fact that he had supported the Irish struggle in the past, he also supported the freedom of Rangers fans to sing the songs he hates with a passion. An outcry ensued as Rangers fans shouted and swore at Rooney. ‘I couldn’t help but keep thinking’, Rooney told me later, ‘about how it would feel as my nose was crushed against my skull’.
Yet despite the intention to disrupt and potentially attack the meeting, the Rangers fans were not solely obstructive. In fact, some actually entered the debate, questioning, for instance, the right of Celtic fans to oppose the Poppy Day commemoration or to sing ‘terrorist’ songs. And to his credit, the situation did not not peturb Rooney’s fellow speaker, Labour MSP Michael McMahon, who continued to challenge the new Bill, as he had done very well previously in the Scottish Parliament.
The contrast between this event and the open and friendly debate at Ibrox could not be more stark. But in the end, the courage of the FAC organisers and speakers meant a debate took place, in the most difficult of environments, about why fans need the freedom to work out for themselves what they should sing and chant.
It has become a mantra today that sectarian chants are ‘not acceptable’ in modern Scotland, and the Scottish government likes to pull out statistics showing that the vast majority of Scots oppose sectarianism. However, something being ‘unacceptable’ should be a moral not a legal matter. If people want to challenge how fans behave, they have a right to do that. But disapproval of something does not mean that we should use the power of the state to ban it or to make it illegal.
The positive lesson of last weekend is that the pettiness of those who tried to disrupt the Celtic meeting was not reflected among the majority of Rangers fans at the Ibrox meeting. If the vote there is anything to go by, even die-hard football fans are open to arguments in favour of the decriminalisation of songs at games.
There is historical precedent for finding common ground against censorship, even between bitter foes like Rangers and Celtic. In my speech to the Rangers fans I raised the case of the Scottish Football Association attempting to ban the flying of the Irish tricolour over Celtic Park in 1952. In the end, this attempt was blocked by the principled position adopted by Rangers Football Club itself, who defended Celtic’s right to fly the Irish flag over their ground. The genuine tolerance shown there is to be applauded; it can stand as a benchmark of how we can take things forward today.
The meaning of tolerance has been bastardised today and has come to mean we can ban almost anything we find ‘offensive’ and ‘intolerant’. But the true, liberal meaning of tolerance grew out of a belief in the need to allow, to ‘tolerate’, ideas, beliefs and practices that we might disagree with or even loath. In a free society, expressions of loyalty, belief and even hate must be defended whether that means ensuring flags can be flown, songs can sung or meetings can be held.