There is something strange about the latest controversy to surround the Green Brigade. This section of the Celtic support have produced far more provocative material than that unfurled against AC Milan on Tuesday – “blood stained poppies” spring to mind. The display at the centre of the storm this time was comprised of two paintings, one of Bobby Sands and one of William Wallace, and a few lines of poetry that attempted to equate the struggles of both men.
The first sign that the banner display had upset the apple cart came from UEFA, who brought Celtic up on disciplinary procedures for a breach of the ban on displaying ‘political symbols’ inside the stadium. The club, in the shape of Chief Executive Peter Lawwell, leapt on the opportunity to attack the fans and distract attention from a poor performance and the result in the match. The Scottish media gleefully piled on, backing the narrative that the Green Brigade were a liability, ‘living in the past’ and should have been dealt with long ago. The Glasgow Evening Times helpfully boiled down the rather complex message contained in the display for its readers: it was an ‘IRA Banner’, they assured them.
The ever-menacing presence of the Provisionals notwithstanding, the meaning of display has been all but ignored in the coverage. In fact, the display was not primarily about the politics of Irish or Scottish freedom. Instead, it was a message directed at Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government on the day of the publication of the White Paper. Using the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act introduced by the current Scottish Government, several Celtic fans have already been arrested and imprisoned for singing ‘Roll of Honour’, a song which commemorates the 10 men who died in the second Irish Hunger Strike, among them Bobby Sands.
This song, let it be absolutely clear, contains absolutely zero “sectarian” content. There is no mention of the Queen, the Pope, the merits of Protestantism, the Virgin Mary or trans-substantiation. There is no mention of the IRA (3 of the hunger strikers who died were not members of the IRA). Millions of people in Ireland and Britain who did not endorse the IRA’s strategy nevertheless supported the campaign of the hunger strikers for political status. Bobby Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981 only because his campaign reached beyond Sinn Fein and hardened, physical force Republicans. Sands’ death was greeted by protests worldwide, from Paris to Iran. The US Congress passed a resolution honouring Sands after his death. He was and remains a global symbol of resistance to oppression. Yet, in modern Scotland, singing a song about his sacrifice could get you 5 years in prison. The display on Tuesday night was an effective – albeit somewhat crude – attempt to call hypocrisy on those who would laud the heroes of Scotland’s fight for freedom but denounce Ireland’s.
There is a larger tragedy here. The hostility that the Scottish Government has built up for itself among sections of the Celtic support is unnecessary, unfortunate, but it is real. Predominantly working class, with no affection for the symbols of the Union and an attachment to a radical political tradition, the Celtic support should be rich pickings for the independence campaign. Instead, the SNP’s heavy handed and culturally illiterate attempts to tackle sectarianism have already built up major barriers that it is going to be difficult to shift. It has reinforced historic suspicions about the SNP’s attitude to the descendants of the Irish disapora in Scotland that charlatans such as George Galloway have attempted to feed upon.
Even if you dislike the Green Brigade and their permanently confrontational posture, you should care about their right to dissent. The forces that want to silence them are the same forces that protect the cosy little consensus suffocating society in Scotland and beyond. Repealing the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act would be an embarrassing retreat for the Government, but it would help repair a running sore in relations between nationalists and a key constituency in Scottish life. The Bill is a solution looking for a problem. The divisions in Scottish life are no longer religious, they are political and cultural. Criminalizing the public expression of certain types of opinion cannot be part of the Scotland we are trying to build.
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