The Sound of Silence
The 18th Century French Philosopher and thinker Voltaire is often quoted as saying… ‘I hate what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’ Freedom of expression is a pillar of any society which calls itself democratic and Voltaire recognised the need for open debate and discourse in any healthy society. Of course freedom of speech isn’t unlimited. You are not free to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema for instance but each of us has the right to hold and express opinions, even those opinions others find distasteful. It is the function of Government, as the elected representatives of the people, to formulate laws which define what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale. Following the ridiculous moral panic over the so called ‘Shame Game’ in March 2011 when Celtic knocked Oldco Rangers out of the Scottish Cup, we were treated to a truly pathetic bout of hand wringing from politicians and the media. Yes, it was a tousy game with 3 Oldco players Red carded. Yes songs were sung that were distasteful, mostly from the away fans but it was no re-run of the Boyne as some would have us believe. The Politicians, sensing some easy popularity among the chattering classes, waded in with clueless insensitivity.
This last year has seen the advent of the Scottish Government’s attempts to legislate against bigotry, racism and other hate crimes in the specific context of Scottish Football and related internet sites and forums... ‘The Offensive Behaviour at Football and malicious Communications Act (Scotland) 2012’ became law on 19th January 2012. On the face of it this Bill seems to cover territory easily covered by already existing laws. Only the section dealing with internet hate speech could be said to be truly required. However, it seemed the Police now had more than enough power to deal with the sort of ‘Famine Song’ bile we have lived with for so long in Scotland. After all the Act specifically states that it is an offence to…
'Express hatred of, or stirring up hatred against a group of persons based on their membership or presumed membership of a religious group, a social cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation.'
It goes on to further outline the sorts of behaviour which it wishes to see vanish from Scottish Football stadia. Few would contest the rightness of challenging racism, homophobia, bigotry and other hate crimes but as always it is the interpretation of the law which forms the bone of contention. The Act states in a more ambiguous sentence that it is illegal to engage in any behaviour which ‘a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive.’ In terms of Scottish Football this is clearly a double edged sword. What people find offensive varies from person to person and it is a difficult area to find consensus. What was clear was that the Act was taking aim not just at the foul songs which poured from the Ibrox Legions for decades but at the perceived ‘offensive’ Irish Republican chants sung by a minority among the Celtic support. Whether you find these songs offensive or not isn’t the point. Their place at a Scottish football game is.
Those of you who have been kind enough to read my ramblings in the past will know that I oppose the singing of Republican songs at Celtic Park or any other Scottish football stadium. I accept the right of others to hold whatever opinions they wish and make no value judgement on them at all. I am happy to admit to enjoying Irish songs of all hues in my own life but I also feel it is not appropriate to sing them at Celtic games. We need to be more intelligent and not give those who hate Celtic a stick to beat us with. The Green Brigade have brought much needed colour and noise to Celtic Park as the all seated Stadia of the modern era struggle to match the atmosphere of past decades. I have praised them fully for their wonderful support and the spectacle they bring to Celtic games. I have also been clear in my opposition to the Rebel songs which make up part of their repertoire. We simply don’t need them. We have many great Celtic songs. In terms of the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football Act’’ it may be that the Police consider these songs to be ‘offensive’ to a reasonable person and thus constitute a breach of the law.
It is claimed that the Police are involved in a concerted effort to undermine the Green Brigade. The group released a statement last year which accused the Police of disproportionate and heavy handed policing. In the end the group decided to boycott two Celtic games in protest at the perceived harassment. It was stated in November 2011 that the Green Brigade had reached a point where they were no longer prepared to put up with the sort of treatment they were experiencing. As we basked in the glow of defeating Barcelona, they were stating that…
‘It has come to the stage where we have to act and fight back. We can’t continue to let the Police have free reign to arrest and charge whoever they please. It is having an astronomical effect on people’s livelihoods. Those members who are left without a charge can’t even enjoy the football anymore in case it leads to a chap at the door that could change their lives forever. The grim reality is that if we don’t act now, there may not be a group left come the end of the season.’
Most fans in the Stadium on match days are well aware of the surveillance of the Green Brigade by the Police. A camera is usually pointed at them and they respond with their chants about where the Police can stick the said camera. So why are the Police doing this? Are these fans really a threat to law and order? There may be a case for stopping the pyrotechnics on safety grounds and Celtic FC have expressed concern about ‘Lateral movements of fans and overcrowding in Block 111’ but the Green Brigade have no history of serious disorder on any real scale. The events at Dundee on Boxing day, disputed as they are, have wrongly been attributed to Green Brigade members by some. The group cannot be said to pose a threat to life or limb in the stadia of Scotland. So why the heavy handed Police actions? Are they seeking to eradicate Rebel songs from the stadium? What is the role of Celtic FC in all of this as these are their fans who are claiming they are being harassed at Celtic Park?
Today at Celtic Park we saw a good performance and a solid victory for Celtic. 500 or so of our fellow Season Ticket Holders were not there. These fans pay their £500 like the rest of us and felt so strongly about the actions of the Police at Celtic Park that they didn’t enter the stadium. We await official confirmation from the Green Brigade and Police about what occurred today but one fan stated on The Huddleboard today that…
''We turned up today like everyone else, only we were met with a welcoming committee at the turnstiles. We had one banner confiscated by the police & lads threatened to hand over their details or face arrest. The police had sheets with names & mug-shots on them, & as these lads entered, they were immediately removed and told they were banned. This is despite have no prior warning from the club about being banned & having no banning order. Even in spite of this most still went into the ground wanting to support their team, however after seeing bodies pulled out as soon as they entered the turnstiles, then why even bother? The club/police look to be winning anyways, I'd be surprised if the GB are their next season.''
The fan went on to add, ‘Honestly, scunnered. £500 a year for this?’ The silence from Celtic FC is deafening. There are those who feel the Club may be colluding behind the scenes in the actions of the Police. John Bennet on a Socialist Website states that….
‘A statement from the Govan Emerald Celtic Supporters Club sheds light on police harassment beyond the Green Brigade to Celtic fans in general. More worryingly it suggests active complicity from Celtic FC in targeting their own fans as strategy to curb the singing of Irish Republican songs by Celtic fans. Furthermore, it is suggested that this is part of a strategy to avoid publicly challenging the tradition of singing Republican songs which goes back the best part of a century. If these claims are true then a huge scandal is emerging as it amounts to the boardroom of Celtic PLC using the police (i.e. a publicly-funded apparatus of the State) in an underhand and bullying manner against the real heart of the club, it’s working-class fan base.’
Such an assertion is of course unsubstantiated as yet. Celtic have been quiet to the point of dereliction of duty on this issue. Indeed the Govan Emerald stated later that they had discussions with the Club which cleared the matter up but such misunderstandings thrive in the vacuum left by Celtic FC not discussing the issues openly with the whole support. These are Celtic fans, paying customers who claim they are being harassed at our home stadium. The club should speak up. So what are we to make of all of this? It’s my opinion that there is a struggle being waged by the Police against the Green Brigade. The justification for this struggle remains unclear. It seems excessive to regularly film and monitor one section of the Celtic support in this manner. There is little or no history of violence by the Green Brigade so it seems the songbook issue may be the reason for this situation? Or are the Police more concerned about this new found ability of working class folk to organise, mobilise and politicise? Whatever is going on has the potential to cause a rift in the Celtic family and the Club would be well advised to reconsider its vow of silence on the matter.
As for the continued struggle between the Police and the Green Brigade, it seems that the forces of Law and order have committed resources on a scale which seems out of proportion to the perceived problem. This story has not yet reached the end and it is to be hoped that all members of the Celtic family are treated with the due respect when they attend games at Celtic Park and elsewhere. The law is there to serve and protect the people, it should not be used to enforce conformity. Voltaire reminds us of another important facet of a democratic state which values individual freedom when he stated…
‘It is better to risk sparing a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.’