Intolerance 1, Celtic fans 0
In the latest attack on Scottish football fans' freedoms, Celtic fans are being demonised for waving a banner that was allegedly 'disrespectful'.
Following Tuesday’s Champions League match against AC Milan at Celtic Park in Glasgow, football’s European governing body UEFA has confirmed that it has instigated disciplinary proceedings against Celtic for what it describes as ‘an illicit banner of a non-sporting nature’. In turn, Celtic Football Club released a statement on Wednesday announcing that it intends to hunt down those fans responsible for ‘showing clear disrespect’.
So, what was the ‘illicit banner’ and ‘disrespect’ that has caused a storm in the Scottish media and further afield? It was a banner depicting Scottish warrior William Wallace and Irish Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, side by side.
The intention behind the banner unfurled by the Green Brigade, a group of Celtic supporters, was to highlight the hypocrisy of the Scottish government, which is currently jailing Celtic fans for singing Republican songs in commemoration of Sands – a man the fans consider to be a freedom fighter yet who is labelled a terrorist by the Scottish authorities.
Alongside the portraits of Wallace and Sands was a slogan: ‘The terrorist or the dreamer; the savage or the brave? Depends whose vote you’re trying to catch, or whose face you’re trying to save.’ The Green Brigade statement issued in response to threats of bans and arrest said that ‘the point being made was that it is both hypocritical and discriminatory to celebrate the Scottish nationalist struggle while criminalising the Irish nationalist struggle’.
The statement went on to say: ‘Ultimately, due to the subjective nature of what anyone may deem offensive, it is both dangerous and absurd to create a law based upon offensiveness.’ The law the Green Brigade is referring to is the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act, introduced by the current Scottish National Party (SNP) government 18 months ago. Under the act, football fans found guilty of expressing offensive words at football games or online face penalties of up to five years in prison.
Celtic’s chief executive, Peter Lawell, described the banner as ‘nothing more than clear disrespect for the club and our supporters who now face another UEFA charge’. He went on to say how the club had been inundated with complaints from Celtic fans who found the display offensive. Yet every Celtic supporter I have spoken to found the banner to be not only witty, but a brilliant retort and two fingers to those who would criminalise and demonise Celtic fans simply on the basis of the songs they sing. While there may be some fans who side with the club’s owners and management on this, there is no doubt that a very significant section of Celtic fans are right behind the Green Brigade in its refusal to bow down and accept diktats from on high regarding what fans can and cannot sing or what banners they can fly.
The specific song that gave rise to the current dispute is ‘The Roll of Honour’, a lament commemorating 10 Irish republicans who died on hunger strike in Long Kesh prison in 1981. These men, as the Green Brigade points out, died fighting in a bid to be recognised as political prisoners and not mere criminals. In Scotland today, it is deemed illegal and criminal simply to commemorate them. The number of fans arrested and charged for singing ‘The Roll of Honour’ continues to rise every week.
However, before ‘The Roll of Honour’ was deemed worthy of censorship, it was another song – ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’ – which was targeted as unacceptable. This is a well-known song sung by many Irish and anti-imperialists commemorating the Irish War of Independence from 1918 to 1921, which eventually liberated 26 of the 32 Irish counties from British rule. But it won’t stop there. The list of songs proscribed and deemed offensive will continue to grow because the new law rests on a subjective definition of what constitutes offensiveness. In other words, this law allows the Scottish police and government to label as offensive and illegal literally anything they deem to be so.
So ridiculous and arbitrary is this law that the Scottish minister responsible for drafting it stated that, in a certain context, Celtic fans ‘blessing themselves in an aggressive manner’ could be deemed offensive and illegal, as could rival Rangers supporters singing ‘Rule Britannia’. The irrational and nonsensical logic of this law appears endless. More importantly, the authoritarian consequences of the law are becoming ever-more apparent as prison cells continue to fill up with young football fans found guilty of singing the wrong song.
Perversely, this criminalisation – not only of Celtic fans, but of Scottish football fans in general – is being carried out under the guise of promoting tolerance and diversity. Under the SNP government, tolerance has come to mean that people must be polite and nice to each other. This means that not only political statements, but what one might refer to as traditional football banter is now deemed fair game for vilification and punishment. In other words, tolerance – which one would assume implies freedom of speech – has come to mean its very opposite in Scotland. It has come to mean closing down any speech, singing, assembly or public display that those in power dislike. We are seeing the bastardisation of tolerance via the draconian treatment of working-class football fans.
Undoubtedly, it is those Celtic fans expressing sympathy for Irish republicanism who are currently bearing the brunt of what is now an all-out assault on liberty. But be warned, it will not be long before the anti-freedom consequences of this law impact on other football supporters in Scotland, too. This warning alone should be sufficient reason for everyone who follows football in Scotland or Britain to lend their full support to the Green Brigade and Celtic supporters more broadly, who are daring to stand up and fight back against a vicious attack on the right to sing and chant what we want.
Kevin Rooney is a writer and teacher based in London.