Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Laughter of our Children

My Twitter timeline today was full of tweets about the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands. It got me thinking about the place of politics in sport and in particular, the place of Republican sentiments being expressed at Celtic games. We can never undo the cords that bind Celtic FC to Ireland, nor should we seek to. Our history has its roots in the Irish diaspora and dreadful treatment the Irish faced which drove so many to leave their native land. Few can deny that the founding fathers of Celtic were generally Irish or Scots-Irish nationalists who saw some sort of home rule for Ireland as a desired outcome to the country’s tortured history. Early generations of Celtic fans were almost exclusively the children of the Irish exodus which saw literally hundreds of thousands of people leave Ireland to escape hunger, oppression and destitution. In the first successful decades of Celtic’s existence, contemporary newspaper reports often refer to them (and Hibs) as ‘The Irishmen’ and intimate that they’d like to see a ‘Good Scotch’ team put them in their place.

However, as time progressed and the Irish in Scotland became more assimilated, Celtic began to attract fans from other groups in Scottish society. The Stein years brought not only glory to Celtic FC but a sizable number of followers from out-with the traditional Scots-Irish community. I met a man from Fraserbrough at a game who recalled as a child watching Celtic play a benefit match for the families of a dreadful lifeboat disaster in 1970. He told me Celtic won many life-long fans by that kind gesture from a community which was hardly ‘Celtic minded’ before the game. Such stories illustrate that the appeal of Celtic has out-grown any easy stereotypes of our fan base. Yes, the majority are still the offspring of the Irish influx but you’ll also see Scots with no Irish blood, Scots-Asians, Afro-Caribeans, Poles and a host of others from Thailand to Catalonia tell you how they love the Hoops. There is no doubt the club and support try to be open and welcoming to all comers as the mission statement produced in the McCann years rightly states. So what place is there among this diverse and mixed support for the expression of political sentiments at Celtic games?

 I am not na├»ve enough to think politics and sport never mix as they often do. From Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the Black Panther Salutes of African American athletes in Mexico 1968, right through to South Africa’s ‘Rainbow nation’ winning the Rugby world cup in 1994, Politics has always been there. Mandela chose to wear Francois Pienaar’s shirt that day to send out a political message. The average Black South African normally wanted the all- white Springboks to lose every game but here was a change. Now they had some equality, now they all had a vote, now they were all equal before the law of  South Africa. Mandela’s actions were political but they were positive, aimed at uniting people. Can we say the same of political songs about the conflict in Ireland being sung at Scottish football games?

All my life I have abhorred the ‘FTP’ songs spewed out by unthinking followers of our erstwhile main rivals. I abhorred the casual anti Catholic bigotry I heard in the workplace, pubs, clubs and even on public transport. I recall stopping in a Lanarkshire town to ask directions to a RC Church where I was attending a wedding. The middle aged man in the smart suit I asked spat out, ‘It’s up by the abbatoir where it fucking should be!’ I also recall a workmate answer the phone one day and laugh out loud before informing his colleague’s, ‘That guy just asked if I was a catholic and before I could answer he shouted ‘Fuck the Pope.’ Not only was it sad that unintelligent people would make such a phone call, but also that more sane individuals think it’s funny. Another senior figure at work, ostensibly educated on anti-racism and sexism issues yet still casually says things like, ‘I knew I’d done something Irish’ when she makes an error. An Irish friend at work says nothing but I catch her eye and we quietly shake our heads.  That is the reality of 21st Century Scotland or at least sectors of it.

Celtic is a fantastic ideal. Never lose sight of why this club was born but also bear in mind that how we behave, the songs we choose to sing and the attitudes we espouse will all impact on how the club is perceived. I want Celtic to be open to all, a friend of the poor and oppressed, a club that values its history but is not held captive by it. I want people to point at Celtic and say ‘That’s how a football club should be, a positive force in society.’ We learn from the past but we live in the present and we plan for the future. There is nothing wrong with holding strong political views but please consider the damage which can be done to Celtic by airing them at games. We live in a country where sections of the media can’t wait to throw mud at Celtic. They love to portray the ‘Old Firm’ as two sides of the same coin, two cheeks of the same arse, when the reality is far different. Only one club barred players on religious grounds for decades, only one club’s fans sang disgraceful bigoted songs for generations while a compliant and shabby Media said nothing. Only one club operated a grubby ‘aparthied’ policy which was against every decent tenet of what sport is about while the SFA said and did nothing. We are not and never have been like them and I thank God for that.
Celtic belongs to us all. People of all faiths and none, people of all political hues, people from all ethnicities. The only qualification you need is a love of the Green. We don’t force our opinions on politics or anything else onto our fellow fans. We accept diversity as a strength and not a weakness. A long time ago Brother Walfrid had a dream that his club would be a force for good in society. Let’s continue to make that dream a reality.

 Bobby Sands and his comrades gave their lives trying to create what they thought would be a fairer society, a society where the curse of sectarianism was banished forever. A society where ordinary men and women all had a place regardless of their creed or colour. On that much we agree. He once said: ’Our revenge will be in the laughter of our children.’ I for one would much rather hear the laughter of our children than the banging drums of war. 

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