By I Am Séamus Fierce
On Saturday 16th March, Celtic FC faced Aberdeen at their home stadium in Parkhead, Glasgow. With the fixture forming part of a St. Patrick’s weekend of festivities, spirits around the stadium were high, particularly after Hoops winger Kris Commons’ record-breaking early goal, 12 seconds after kick-off. The Green Brigade (GB), Celtic’s hardcore ‘Ultras’, normally lead the singing and provide the colour on such occasions. Section 111, the corner in which they sit (although they spend more time bouncing around than on their backsides) acts like a pulse for the congregation. Not so on this occasion. In the corner of the north and west stands, my near neighbours speculated on what had them grumbling this time. A clue came late in the game, with “A.C.A.B.” chants ringing out, alongside invitations to the security personnel to stick their cameras somewhere unmentionable.
As the day wore on, we heard on the grapevine about the events which had transpired before the game. Several dozen supporters, mainly young ones, had answered the GB’s call for a pre-match procession along the Gallowgate, a protest against perceived persecution of fellow fans. 200 of Strathclyde’s Finest responded in a manner familiar to students involved in the 2010/11 anti-fees movement: helicopters, horses, batons, kettling, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. Several were jailed, some for crimes as serious as having a scarf covering their face on a cold day. And they say it’s only a game.
Some background is probably useful here. Firstly, Ultras are not hooligans. Or at least most of them aren’t. Their style, rather than being a continuation of the 1980s Casuals, is derived from a culture long-established in continental Europe and South America. The idea is to devote yourself heart and soul to your club, organise bright ‘Tifo’ displays, and sing your head off win, lose or draw. March 16th’s corteo is not without precedent, indeed a number of visiting European teams’ supporters have organised similar in the recent past. As a matter of fact, so have the Green Brigade. I struggle to think of any serious ‘public order’ justification the police could use for breaking up this gathering, other than its open criticism of their conduct.
Many Ultras groups embrace the mixing of politics and sport. Often this can mean the exaggeration of an inherent ‘meaning’ behind following a team, beyond just liking their colours and the way they play. An excellent example of this is Italian side S.S. Lazio’s Irriducibili (Invincibles), famous for exchanging straight-arm salutes with Paolo di Canio and booing black players who turn out for their team. Ugly indeed, but anyone who has spent time in the West of Scotland will need no explanation about what it looks like when the beautiful game turns sour. Left or right, nationalist or pro-worker, what unites all Ultras is a desire to save the ‘soul’ of their club from being sold out to Modern Football.
Sectarianism is undoubtedly a blight on Scotland, and addressing it has featured as a flagship policy for parties of Government since the devolved Parliament was established in 1999. While Labour’s approach in office (1999-2007) focused mainly on moralising about how terrible the issue was, the SNP have taken a far more hands-on approach. No politician is willing to get into the details of what actually constitutes a sectarian act. There is simply deemed to be 2 sides, ‘Sean South’ the yang to ‘the Billy Boys’ ying. I personally do not think that ethnic cleansing anthems such as ‘Famine Song’ are justified by the other side’s romanticisation of the Irish armed struggle, but it’s a brave MSP who deviates from the prevailing consensus.
The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill was the first piece of legislation passed by the SNP majority administration in 2011. All the opposition parties, plus a variety of stakeholders such as anti-sectarian campaigns, claimed major flaws in the process of writing it up and putting it through the chamber. A big problem is its lack of specificity. The criteria for illegality is not whether certain words breach anti-discrimination law, but instead whether any offence is taken by listeners, as that could consequently provoke trouble. Basically, if it’s considered controversial, that could make someone else kick off, so you’re just no allowed to sing it, mmm’kay?
Football banning orders have been widely used, with complaints of heavy-handedness. One fan was arrested at Glasgow airport while returning from holiday with his family. Another was deprived of his livelihood for several months as Strathy Polis objected to his application for a taxi driver’s licence, citing an ongoing investigation – though no charges ever materialised. An impromptu boycott occurred on 16th February 2013, after a number of fans were denied entry to Celtic Park without warning or explanation, while others were warned of being on a police “wanted list”. Throughout matches, home and away, the group faces cameras recording their every move. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point. The gravity of all this goes beyond which team you support or whether you even like fitba. This is now a civil liberties issue.
The majority of the Scottish Left have historically taken a ‘fudge’ position on any matters connected to Ireland. It’s sectarian, it’s divisive, just don’t go there. If radical discourse critiques the constitutional arrangement in the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, it’ll smack of republicanism. Ergo Rangers fans, or more generally ethnic Scots with a Protestant identity, will be repulsed by socialism, permanently fracturing the working-class movement… so the theory goes. Personally I don’t really buy it. In an era of growing calls to break up the United Kingdom and establish a new country in north-west Europe, we are inadvertently stirring up the ghosts of the early 20th Century and the formation of the Irish Free State. I would hope that we can break the taboo whereby we never talk about these things. How about admitting that we can probably learn some things from the Irish experience, and let’s agree that it’s important to speak out against injustice.
This is why I feel the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) should take a stand alongside Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC), and oppose the ongoing harassment of football fans by specialist police units.
I realise that some will say this is a no-go. A motion in the pre-split SSP to support the James Connolly parade was defeated, after a debate in which the Glasgow organiser Richie Venton argued the annual march had been co-opted by republicans. He omitted the fact that the SSP was itself a republican organisation, i.e. in favour of abolition of the monarchy. The same thinking may enter the minds of some socialists: we need to stand above sectarian division. In truth, to remain silent while an abuse of power plays out, for fear that speaking out may offend the victim’s rival, is the real capitulation to sectarianism.
It’s similar to the SNP leadership’s logic that we can’t rock the boat by questioning the Queen, as that may put some people off. Sometimes you need to give up on trying to please everyone and just do what is right. RIC’s role is not to be all things to all people. Supporting FAC could be a first step towards intergating a key constituency into the transformative Radical Indy project.
Post-GFA, there’s space for a degree of truth and reconciliation. That may not last long, with the economic downturn draining the pots of peace money, exposing the contradictions within the Stormont power share. That’s for another discussion. If I’m being sensationalist here, I’ll happily acknowledge a counter-narrative. But we need to get our head round the idea that Scottish society was for a long time a very hostile environment for Irish immigrants and their descendants. Racist attitudes about Irish people being inherently more stupid than other Europeans were prevalent, as evidenced by the continued existence of “Pat & Mick” jokes. Many employers would exclude anyone who went to school at “Saint Something’s” or had a suspicious surname like Kelly or O’Donnell. The streets were often unsafe, with several no-go areas and frequent violence.
Clydeside industry was heavily dependant on orders for British military hardware, especially ships, laying the basis for an intertwining of chauvinism with working-class identity. Let us not forget that Scotland’s first dalliance with colonialism was not Darien, not South Africa or Australia, but closer to home in little old Ulster. In return for assimilation into Greater England, the new state created in 1707 not only bailed out the floundering Scottish exchequer, it also maintained the Scottish Planters’ status as a privileged caste. The Act of Union was the contemporary equivalent of today’s US/UK “special relationship”, whereby a failed empire offers its dominions and specialist skill to a stronger rival, in exchange for a junior partner role in a more viable power bloc. Scotland tried and failed to build an empire, but the British state picked up where its precursors had left off.
All that is a slight digression, I know, but the present is always influenced by the past. There is currently a flux in Scots’ attitudes about our place in the world, with certain sections of society decidedly spooked by it all. Nationalist change-drivers are eager to to calm the nerves by emphasising continuity in certain aspects of the nation’s psyche. For those terrified about the rupturing of British unity, who perhaps feel that their country is slipping away from them, there’s the soothing presence of the First Minister’s pledge of fealty to HRH QE2 and a clampdown on public Fenianism. It’s sometimes called dog-whistle politics. A “there-there, it’s gonna be okay” to Orange walkers. This is a dangerous game for the SNP to play, as it risks alienating those who should be solid allies in breaking up Britain.
Scottish Labour are of course pass masters at dishonestly playing off either side to maintain the status quo. On the one hand you’ve got the perception that Glasgow City Council is run by the Knights of St. Columba, on the other you’ve got the Loyal Orange Lodge openly calling for a Labour vote (as well as threatening insurrection if there’s a Yes victory in the indy ref). However, even by their own standards, Labour’s anti-independence strategy has been cynical. At a recent STUC event, Pauline McNeill took humbrage at being described as a unionist, citing her Irish Catholic heritage. Her objections were perplexing, as she was speaking on behalf of Better Together, the pro-UK coalition of Tories, Labour and LibDems. If that’s not unionist I don’t know what is.
Even worse has been ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway, who’s been stirring up communal tension by claiming Scottish sovereignty would bring about the closing of all Catholic schools within 10 years, coining the bizarre line “there ain’t no green in the Saltire” – as though Westminster rule were the only thing saving the Tims from rampaging loyalist mobs. Nonsense though this is, these forces will constantly insinuate that SNP = ‘Say No Pope’ between now and the referendum. Salmond and MacAskill are not willing to tackle this directly, so it befalls RIC to make the case for independence as a means of establishing a secular republic that stands for peace in the world and equality at home.
All this talk has obviously spooked the intelligence services. Though the police blame the club and the club blame the police, it’s obvious that there’s a project to snuff out an unpredictable and growing political force at Parkhead. After a decade of harassing Muslims, MI5/Special Branch were unaccustomed to dealing with republicans and socialists in 2007, the year of the GB’s founding and the beginnings of the financial crash. They’ve been making up for lost time in the last few years. I’ve witnessed extra-legal methods like unexplained detention, unprovoked assaults and people being jailed to appear in court on ridiculous trumped-up charges. This has happened at the Hetherington, anti-cuts actions, Slutwalk and Glasgow Against Atos, to name but a few. It’s important for FAC to link up supporters of all football clubs, but also to forge links with other groups who have been victims of political policing.
Much of this over-the-top reaction is possibly to justify budgets in the age of austerity. The newspapers hype up “world war 3” after 2 managers have an argument; politicians see an opportunity to look tough, throw money at it; then it’s incumbent on senior cops to justify how that money is spent so they can get the same again next year. So you send a helicopter out for 50 students with a megaphone, or 20 riot vans for a few dozen folk walking to a game together.
In mid-2011, after being arrested for an event unrelated to football, a 17-year-old comrade was removed from the cells at court, to speak to 2 officers in pin-striped suits. These cops gave their names butt would not disclose which department they worked for. He was asked questions like:
- Are you a member of a political party?
- Do you know anyone who is?
- Do you want to overthrow the government?
- What are your parents’ political beliefs?
…and so on. Stranger still was when he told them he worked at Celtic Park on matchdays. Then the questioning changed…
- Are you a member of the Green Brigade?
- Do you know anyone who is?
- What do you think about what they do?
- What are your views on Northern Ireland?
…with the corker of a line “there’s a lot of that socialism going about at Celtic Park these days.” All the more weird as this had nothing to do with what he’d been charged with. Just cos you’re paranoid…
Whatever the history, radicals and ultras are united in suffering the same police repression. From a socialist point of view, it’s difficult to ask for support from other causes when you’re under the cosh, if you’re not willing to help people who don’t 100% share your worldview.
Solidarity with Fans Against Criminalisation, and let’s unite to build a new country that tackles the roots causes of bigotry.
Here’s the facebook event for Saturday’s protest, 12 noon at George Square.