After the fall…
I had an interesting debate with a couple of Celts online recently about the banner display at the Celtic v AC Milan game. We were unlikely to convince each other of the veracity of each other’s point of view but at least they argued their points with intelligence and no little feeling. They were also undoubtedly decent blokes who thought the whole point of the display was to expose the stupid double standards going on with the implementation of the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) 2012. While the point that Irish nationalist songs are being criminalised while Scottish nationalist songs are not is not lost on anyone, was it really appropriate to highlight this using a huge image of Bobby Sands? This was done on a Champions League night when Sky TV was covering the game and the watching millions in the UK and around Europe would obviously notice it. My point that it was not appropriate to display such a banner at any football stadium was rejected by my friends on the grounds that there was a struggle for a basic right going on; namely the right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is never absolute as it must always be tempered by responsibility. Given that Bobby Sands (as opposed to William Wallace) is very much a current historical figure whose life, actions and death caused great controversy, was the banner display responsible? To some, Sands was a hero and an icon of the struggle against British imperialist domination in Ireland. To others he was a member of a group who carried out some inexcusable atrocities. I mentioned this fact during our debate last night and the point was given a body-swerve Jinky would have been proud of. Let me use one illustration of why I feel the Sands banner was inappropriate at a Scottish Football match…
Bridget O’Reilly, who was once described as a ‘perfect Irish Lady’ did her best to raise her family in challenging times. She lived in Birmingham at a time when Irish people were receiving the sort of hostility and suspicion our Muslim friends are receiving from a misguided minority today. Her boys Eugene and Desmond, both in their early twenties were full of life and fun. On a chilly November evening in 1974 they went into the centre of Birmingham to enjoy a night’s drinking and dancing and they didn’t come home. The bombs which killed the two brothers and 19 other, mostly young working class people caused utter carnage. Emergency Service personnel were traumatised by the scale of the attack and the horrific sights which greeted them. Over 180 people were injured and only the fact that a third device failed to detonate kept the death toll down that night in Birmingham. Bridget O’Reilly had thought initially that she had lost one son in the attack but her heart was further broken when it became clear that both boys were dead. Of course, the utter stupidity of the politicians and police became evident when they convicted 6 innocent men for the crimes in an atmosphere of increasing anti-Irish hysteria. Many Celtic fans know all about the Birmingham six and judicial blindness which saw them wrongfully convicted but few could name the victims of that atrocity in Birmingham back in November 1974.
Of course the Troubles saw numerous atrocities carried out by all sides and most of the victims were innocent ‘civilians.’ No one came out of that period with any credit. Not the Government, certainly not the Army and not the para-militaries. The IRA campaign which followed their initial (and justifiable) defence of their people from the pogrom besetting them was accompanied by horrifying violence from Loyalist groups. I take no sides, make no petty points and have no political agenda. All I do say is that hurt, pain and scars have yet to heal in the North of Ireland and beyond. How could it be otherwise? Over 3500 people died and more than 45,000 were injured. All of this in an area with a population close to that of the Greater Glasgow urban conurbation. Hardly a family on all sides was unaffected by the troubles and its repercussions. It does no good to anyone to engage in ‘whataboutery.’ Those who study the conflict know these things, we know that for every Birmingham there was a McGurk’s Bar, for every Enniskillen there was a Monaghan, for every Bloody Sunday there a Warrenpoint. The point I make is that in my opinion it was all wrong and all those dreadful wrongs will never make a right.
The years of the troubles saw the north of Ireland fall into a very dark place indeed. In recent years many have tried to pull the Province out of the pit of despair in was in for so long. After the fall comes the slow climb back to peace, normality and hopefully some form of truth and reconciliation. We all know the historic mistakes and crimes which led us to this point but what is needed is for enough people to say ‘That’s enough, no more.’ Nothing is worth the pain, misery and death which visited Bridget O’Reilly and thousands like her on all sides of the conflict.
A few of you reading this will no doubt feel that I’m questioning the rights of some fellow fans to celebrate what they call their ‘culture and heritage.’ The simple answer to that is that I’m not. I’m just saying that it isn’t appropriate to do it in a football stadium and allow every crackpot extremist to think all Celtic fans are supporters of militant Republicanism because that is not the case. Much hatred of Celtic exists in Scotland and images such as the Sands banner feed this hatred and allows some to justify their violence against our people. If you argue that it is part of Celtic’s tradition then I would counter that by saying that there are many more expressions of Irishness than militant Republicanism and Celtic's founding generation were for the most part constitutional nationalists. The past however is gone and we must surely look to be a force for a better future. Celtic is a football club not a political organisation. It was designed as a vehicle to help assimilate the ghettoised Irish of Victorian Glasgow into Scottish society. In that aim, it succeeded beyond Walfrid’s wildest dreams. The club is inclusive of all people and belief systems and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The drive to heal, to include and to unify is not aided by displays of a divisive political nature or songs which have no place at a football stadium. We all know the unfairness of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act without such displays to remind us. Those of us well read in Irish history know well the wrongs of the past, and they were many, but it is the future which is most important now.This club could and should be a shining beacon of decency in society rather than being viewed, as it is by some, as one half of a bigoted double act stuck in the 1950s. We could so easily walk to the moral high ground by stopping such ill-conceived displays. It really is time to stop, time move on to a better future for everyone.
Bridget O’Reilly never got to see her boys live their lives fully, have children and grow old. This proud old Irish woman went to her grave still loving the land of her birth and still grieving for her sons. There is no justification for celebrating any of the groups responsible for such acts no matter what side they claim to fight for or what political or historical justification they claim.
Some things are just plain wrong.
Some things are just plain wrong.
RIP all the innocents lost in the troubles.