Celtic fans: you’re not singing anymore
In what country was a 17-year-old recently arrested for singing an outlawed song? Iran? China? No, it was the UK.
Imagine the scene. A dawn raid. A vanload of police officers batter down a front door. A 17-year-old boy is dragged from his home and driven away. He is charged with a crime and appears in court. His lawyers apply for bail, but the court decides his crime is too serious for that. So he is taken to a prison cell and remanded in custody.
What was his crime? Terrorism? Rape? No, this 17-year-old was imprisoned for singing a song. Where did this take place? Iran? China? Saudi Arabia? No – it was in Glasgow, Scotland, where the 17-year-old had sung songs that are now deemed by the authorities to be criminal. The youth was charged with carrying out a ‘religiously aggravated’ breach of the peace and evading arrest.
Why haven’t you heard about this case? Why aren’t civil liberties groups tweeting like mad about this affront to freedom? Because the young man in question is a football fan. Even worse, he’s a fan of one of the ‘Old Firm’ teams (Celtic and Rangers), which are renowned for their historic rivalry, and the songs he sang were football ditties that aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Draconian new laws are being pushed through the Scottish parliament to imprison fans for up to five years for singing sectarian or offensive songs at football games, or for posting offensive comments on the internet, and this 17-year-old fell foul of these proposed laws.
This is far from an isolated case. This young man is merely the latest victim of a new policy of intimidation directed at Celtic and Rangers supporters. Even before the new laws have officially been passed, there have been numerous arrests at or after football matches. Only last month, as I reported on spiked, Stephen Birrell, a Rangers fan, was jailed for eight months for expressing his hatred of Celtic fans on his Facebook page. In Scotland, sadly, what people say and write is now sufficient criteria for imprisoning them, as the centuries-old distinction between words and action is abolished.
In the absence of any criticism from civil liberties groups, it has fallen to fans themselves to take a stand against the proposed new laws. Despite being portrayed as ill-educated sectarian bigots, many Celtic fans have shown themselves to be intelligent and articulate defenders of free speech. A group called Celtic Fans Against Criminalisation has taken to the airwaves to argue against censorship and managed to mobilise 2,000 people for a public rally against the news laws in central Glasgow.
Even before the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication Act has been passed, the singing of songs has become a key target of heavy-handed policing. The Scottish police have persuaded UEFA to announce an investigation into ‘illicit chanting’ by Celtic fans at a home game against French side Rennes. Likewise, Rangers Football Club was recently fined £35,000 and their fans banned from their next European game for singing sectarian songs during a match against PSV Eindhoven. Not to be outdone, the Scottish Premier League has launched an official investigation into the singing of offensive songs by Celtic fans at a Hibs game that took place several weeks ago. Things have now reached such ludicrous levels that last Sunday’s Scottish newspaper reports on the Inverness Caledonian Thistle v Celtic game devoted more column inches to the songs sung by Celtic fans than to the teams’ performance on the pitch.
Why is something that has always been part of the Old Firm tradition – that is, the singing of Irish republican songs by Celtic fans and anti-IRA, loyalist songs by Rangers fans – suddenly been declared a massive problem? Of course, Irish rebel songs are not to everyone’s taste, but the irony is that – as memories of the Irish conflict fade – fewer fans tend to sing them anyway. Contrary to media reports, IRA songs are no longer a massive part of Celtic fans’ repertoire.
Nonetheless, to the extent that these songs, which clash against loyalist songs amongst Rangers fans, are still sung, they have been an accepted part of Old Firm games for decades. The idea that they are offending vast swathes of rival fans is a myth that is fast becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more and more public figures line up to prove their anti-sectarian credentials by denouncing ‘hateful songs’. The Celtic game against Rennes that is now subject to a UEFA enquiry was actually a peaceful, good-natured match, at which some fans sang Irish rebel songs to no doubt bewildered French football fans. It is hard to imagine how that 17-year-old arrested for allegedly singing IRA songs, which he is said to have done at this Celtic/Rennes match, was breaching the peace of anyone.
The criminalisation and demonisation of Old Firm football fans by the massed ranks of the Scottish government, police and media is a serious problem. Far from reducing ‘sectarian conflict’ in Scottish football, the new censorious laws and the accompanying police campaign have led to a dramatic increase in tensions, with fans now encouraged to spy on each other, to take offence at every comment, and to report rival fans to the police. In a very vicious cycle, the more rival fans are coaxed and cajoled into reporting offensive incidents, then the more arrests there are, and the more the authorities can cite such increases in arrests as a justification for tough new laws and sanctions. It is an open secret that over the past six months, police have been trawling Celtic Park for the remotest hint of a republican song being sung, so that they can arrest, prosecute and convict the person singing it in order to construct a PR image of mass religious hate crimes being committed. It is no coincidence that new and seemingly shocking arrest figures were released to the media in the week before a Scottish parliament vote on the proposed new laws.
The 17-year-old was finally released from prison after a successful campaign by Celtic Fans Against Criminalisation. But it is time that others, especially those who claim to support free speech, added their voices to the opposition to these tyrannical new laws. If we sit back and allow people to be imprisoned for saying (or singing) things that the state does not like, then we won’t be able to complain when the state decides to come after us.
Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London.
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