Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Power of a Song…

Those of you who know the story of Victor Jara will know that the Chilean Folk Singer did what he thought was right for his country and the impoverished and oppressed majority within it. His weapon of choice was his guitar and the songs of freedom which helped sweep the Socialist government of Salvador Allende into power in 1970. Of course the Military and their puppet masters in the CIA organised a coup which saw Allende dead and thousands of left wing intellectuals and activists rounded up and imprisoned in the national football stadium in Santiago. The military junta, as is the way of such fascist and reactionary regimes, left a trail of torture and death in their wake as they ‘cleansed’ Chile. Jara was sent to the stadium with the thousands of others in September 1973 and few, if any of them, saw their families again. The soldiers, knowing Jara was a folk singer wanted to make an example of him and used an axe on his hands in front of hundreds of other prisoners. Witnesses said they laughed and said ‘sing for us now, Victor’ to him as he lay on the turf. To their astonishment, despite his horrendous injuries, Jara stood up and said, "All right comrades, let's do the señor commandante a favor!" and began to sing the ‘Unidad’ a left wing song. The eyewitness recalled that Jara was then machine gunned before the military turned their guns on the other prisoners. Victor Jara’s body had 44 bullet wounds when his English wife identified it at the morgue. Five years later, the SFA thought it appropriate to play Chile in a friendly match in that same stadium.

Forgive the rather heavy content of that first paragraph but it illustrates that some people see songs as dangerous things. Victor Jara weapons of choice were his guitar and his songs. U2 remembered him on their Joshua Tree Album when they wrote in the song ‘One Tree Hill’…

"And in the world a heart of darkness, a fire zone. Where poets speak their heart, then bleed for it. Jara sang, his song a weapon, in the hands of love. Though his blood still cries from the ground."

And so we come to another song in another time and place which some seem to find offensive. Police kick in doors and drag young men off for daring to air it in public. This isn’t 1970s Chile or some other despotic dictatorship, this goes on in 2013 Scotland. The song in question is of course ‘Roll of Honour’ which remembers the 10 Irish Hunger Strikers who died in 1981. It is sung by a small minority of Celtic supporters, mostly at away games and has been the focus of much discussion among the Celtic support. Anyone who reads my blogs will know I don’t think a football stadium is the place for the expression of political sentiments of any kind. I make no value judgment about such songs. I merely question the damage they do to Celtic and our support’s reputation. It is worth printing the lyric of the song here so anyone not familiar with it can judge if they find it offensive or not for themselves…

‘Read the roll of honour for Ireland’s bravest men
We must be united in memory of the ten,

England you’re a monster, don’t think that you have won
We will never be defeated while Ireland has such sons.

In those dreary H-Block cages ten brave young Irishmen lay
Hungering for justice as their young lives ebbed away,
For their rights as Irish soldiers and to free their native land
They stood beside their leader – the gallant Bobby Sands.
Now they mourn Hughes in Bellaghy,
Ray McCreesh in Armagh’s hills

In those narrow streets of Derry they miss O’Hara still,
They so proudly gave their young lives to break Britannia’s hold
Their names will be remembered as history unfolds.

Through the war torn streets of Ulster the black flags did sadly sway
To salute ten Irish martyrs the bravest of the brave,
Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty
They gave their lives for freedom with Thomas McElwee.
Michael Devine from Derry you were the last to die

With your nine brave companions with the martyred dead you lie
Your souls cry out “Remember, our deaths were not in vain.
Fight on and make our homeland a nation once again !”

In terms of content it is a straight forward homage to the courage of Republican prisoners during the troubles, who paid the ultimate price for their beliefs. The ‘Threatening Behaviour at Football and Offensive Communications Act (Scotland) 2012’ deems that in some circumstances such songs may breach the law. Was there ever such a big hammer used to crack such a small nut? A dedicated Police Unit raiding homes, people banned from football with no explanation, young men criminalised for what exactly? Holding political views those in power disagree with?

 Most of us in our naivety thought the new Act would target the hate crimes we lived with for decades and which went unpunished. Namely the foul anti-Catholic rhetoric and anti-Irish racism spouted by a sizable minority of Rangers supporters over the years. It is with some astonishment we watch much of that continue at Newco games with impunity while a small group of Celtic supporters are harassed for political songs! Let’s be clear about it, the above song is not sectarian though some of the unionist persuasion will no doubt dislike it. Personally I would rather it was not sung at Celtic matches but I respect the right of others to disagree with me. Our society’s arguments should be measured on such subjects and based on respect and education not on intolerance and criminalisation. What place is there in a so called democracy for this criminalisation of political opinion? Would they dare do this to any other faction in our society? Not even Nick Griffin and his deplorable fascist party have to deal with such harassment.

 I am a moderate man but even I feel this Law is un-needed and unjust. The tax payers of this country are funding our police and legal system to crack down on political opinion the ruling politicos disagree with. This isn’t about hooliganism as Celtic fans have no real problem in that area. It’s about the labelling of any expression of Irishness as sectarian and offensive. Let’s be clear that those of a unionist or even loyalist opinion are equally entitled to their political beliefs and songs. Where some over-step the bounds of decency and indulge in sectarianism or racism, the existing laws were more than ample to deal with it. It remains a mystery why the Police didn’t enforce those laws over previous decades when naked sectarianism was the order of the day at certain football stadia. However, if we are to allow unfettered freedom of expression, then we as Celtic supporters need to be clear that it applies to all groups in our society. John J Ray, academic and Celtic fan commented on the jailing of a Rangers fan for ‘Sectarian’ singing by saying…

 ‘The other thing that strikes me is how anti-Catholic prejudice seems to be tolerated when it comes from our ‘national treasures’, like Stephen Fry or Richard Dawkins, but not when it comes out of the mouths of football fans. When the pope visited Britain two years ago, liberal campaigners lined up to accuse him of everything from hatred of women to paedophilia. To my knowledge, none of these words were deemed offensive enough to the UK’s Catholic community to prompt arrests or detentions, yet when a Rangers fan shouts of his hatred for the pope, that fan is locked up!’

 So those who wish to continue to sing songs about the conflict in Ireland may well have unlikely allies in those who want to sing the praises of loyalism. So what’s to be done? Do we have a free for all and return to the dark days of the 1960s and 70s? Of course not, but we currently have an unjust act which clearly isn’t working and ordinary young men being criminalised and having job and life prospects damaged for singing political songs. My thoughts are that the alleged £1.8m spent on policing relating to the act would have been better spent on education and anti-sectarian initiatives. You can’t outlaw opinions or political choices in a free society but you can channel such feelings into more appropriate areas. You can’t legislate hatred or bigotry away but you can try to make it less acceptable until it eventually withers and dies. It’s somewhat ironic that the anger this has caused makes it likely that more people will sing songs like ‘Roll of Honour’ as they seek to reassert the basic right to hold and express political opinion as well as show solidarity with the harassed minority. The ‘Threatening Behaviour at Football and Offensive Communications Act (Scotland) 2012’ has created more problems than it has solved and is in need of serious amendment or scrapping.

We saw from the life and death of Victor Jara that some see songs as dangerous weapons. Surely we’ve advanced enough in Scotland to accept diverse opinions without trying to make those opinions we disagree with illegal? And what of the Civil Liberties groups who were so appalled and vociferous when the Russian Pop band ‘Pussy Riot’ were imprisoned for 2 years for shouting anti-religious slogans in a church in Moscow? The silence from them and indeed the trade union movement is deafening. People’s rights are being infringed here, is that acceptable just because they’re football fans?


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