Celtic have banned their ultra fans the Green Brigade, but is it really political activism that’s being punished, asks Dani Garavelli
WITH their passion, their colourful and provocative banners, and their anti-authoritarian attitude, the Green Brigade breathed new spirit into the all-seater Celtic Park, aka Paradise to faithful fans.
That’s something few supporters would dispute. The ultras’ youthful defiance combined with their ability to produce stunning visual expressions of cultural identity revitalised matches which had had the life sucked out of them by health and safety rules, corporate interests and heightened sensibilities around sectarianism.
Take the notorious Four Horseman of the Apocalypse display, featuring Neil Lennon, Hector the taxman, Death and Craig Whyte advancing towards beleaguered Rangers, which was unfurled on the last Old Firm derby of the 2012 season. Whatever your loyalties, it would be difficult not to marvel at the creative energy which went into the realisation of that goading image, accompanied by an array of tombstones across Section 111, the part of the stadium the Green Brigade made its own.
Given the way the supporters’ group boosted the atmosphere, it is little wonder the club has often encouraged its activities, trading on its full stadium display to celebrate Celtic’s 125th anniversary before its victory against Barcelona. “I would say there’s a commercial advantage to the club from having a group of fans who, from their own time and energy, talent and money, provide that kind of support,” says Jeannette Findlay of the Celtic Trust.
Yet like Frankenstein’s monster, the left-wing group seems to be veering out of control. As its members’ anger towards the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications at Football Act – a piece of legislation many see as an attempt to criminalise fans – has mounted, they have sung Irish Republican songs with greater gusto and their displays have become more overtly political, incurring the wrath of Uefa. When a banner showing William Wallace and Bobby Sands, which riffed on the old freedom fighter/terrorist paradox, was unfurled at the Champions League match against AC Milan last month, manager Neil Lennon accused them of “going rogue”. Celtic were fined £42,000 for the protest, the fourth time the club has been punished as a result of fan indiscretions in two years.
But it was the behaviour of supporters within Section 111 at the recent match against Motherwell at Fir Park, when flares were set off and seats destroyed, that proved a tipping point. Last week, the club ended the Green Brigade’s dominance by handing out “precautionary suspensions” to 128 of its members, while forcing 250 season ticket-holders housed in Section 111 to move to other parts of the ground or have their season ticket money refunded.
For those who believe the Green Brigade was long ago swallowed up by its own ego, the move was overdue. Closing his parody Twitter account, The Greetin’ Brigade, one supporter wrote: “I’m [now] positive that a line will be drawn in the sand and the proper fans who have the sole objective of supporting the team within the confines of the law, will now have a safe environment to achieve that.”
But for others it is a massive over-reaction, and a surrender to a prevailing political agenda which wants to outlaw all displays of Irish nationalism. Though no-one condones the ripping up of seats, Celtic fans are quick to point out that such vandalism takes place at other matches (Motherwell fans recently destroyed seats at New Douglas Park) without attracting the same degree of opprobrium.
In any case, those who support the Green Brigade believe last week’s vandalism is a red herring; what its members are really being punished for, they say, is their activism, and they claim that is rank hypocrisy. “We are told politics should be kept out of football, but then the SFA holds a minute’s silence for Mandela,” says one Celtic fan, who is not a member of the Green Brigade. “I have the greatest respect for Mandela, but how can that possibly be seen as anything other than a political statement?”
One could also question the apparent double standards in Uefa’s tolerance of pro-Catalan flags in the Nou Camp and ask whether or not we would disapprove of an Eritrean refugee who wanted to celebrate his heritage through songs about past battles.
The Green Brigade believes its members have been the victim of heavy-handed policing (although others have pointed out the policing at Fir Park was virtually nonexistent). And it feels particularly aggrieved at the way in which Celtic fans have been arrested for singing Roll of Honour, which commemorates the IRA Hunger Strikers. “This song has nothing to do with supporting any armed organisation but is about remembering the sacrifice of ten ordinary young men who gave their lives in their campaign against criminalisation,” a spokesman tells Scotland on Sunday.
“Nelson Mandela cited Bobby Sands as an inspiration and led his own hunger strike at Robben Island shortly afterwards. It’s ironic that this week football clubs across Europe have celebrated Mandela yet our fans are in the dock for displaying banners depicting Sands.”
The way the Green Brigade highlights such contradictions may not meet with everyone’s approval, but they do raise questions which cannot be easily dismissed. For example, is the new Act a legitimate weapon with which to tackle residual sectarianism or a means by which to clamp down on expressions of Irish identity? And should we really expect sport to exist in a vacuum or accept that – from Barcelona to Cairo to Glasgow – football, nationalism and politics are inextricably intertwined?
The Green Brigade wasn’t formed until 2006, but the ultra movement, which is synonymous with banners, choreographic displays, fireworks and drums, has thrived in other European countries since the late 60s. Though often associated with right-wing ideologies, there are many left-wing ultras such as those attached to Livorno and the Hamburg-based St Pauli, with whom Green Brigade members have struck up a friendship. In north Africa, ultras were instrumental in the Arab Spring, particularly the uprising against President Mubarak in Egypt.
“Our group was not modelled on any others but instead sought to marry ultra culture with the unique identity of the Celtic support,” the Green Brigade spokesman says. “This was not a particularly big leap as our support have always been a bit different to the norm in Scotland and Britain; we’ve always been known for our passion and noise, and have always been proud to show our colours. Given Celtic’s roots, our fans have always been proud of our Irish identity and supported the Irish nationalist cause, and our group naturally followed in this tradition.”
Describing itself as anti-fascist, the group has been involved in political campaigning and charitable work. It organises the biggest bloc on the STUC’s anti-racism march, runs its own annual anti-discrimination football tournament, seeks to engage asylum-seekers and regularly organises food bank collections. After the Scottish Government introduced the new legislation, however, the Green Brigade began to engage in increasingly provocative behaviour. The Act, which became law in 2012, makes it illegal to sing certain songs inside and outside the stadium, on public transport, in streets and pubs, although its many critics point out it was already possible to tackle unacceptable football-related behaviour through existing legislation.
“There has always been a law of breach of the peace and prior to the introduction of the new legislation, people at football grounds were convicted under that law for behaving in a manner that was objectively seen to be offensive,” says Brian McConnachie QC. “The situation now is that the police know which area will house the people who are likely to sing those songs, so they film them on their hand-held cameras. They specifically target individuals, then they take the time to look at the footage and work out whether they are singing the song in question. They prosecute them and, at the trial, the only evidence that requires to be led is the evidence of two police officers to say, that’s the guy, here’s the video footage, we heard the singing.
“Nobody in the ground was offended or made a complaint, but nonetheless he’s guilty of that offence and, potentially at least, liable to a custodial sentence. It is crime creation in many ways.”
According to the Green Brigade, victimisation by the police is not confined to taking pictures. “We’ve had fans arrested at airports when returning from family holidays on bogus charges that are dropped as soon as they reach court and supporters dragged from their beds in co-ordinated dawn raids as if they were big-time drug dealers,” the spokesman says.
The Green Brigade has campaigned against the Act with the Celtic umbrella group Fans Against Criminalisation, but it has also produced banners like the one in November 2010, protesting over the placing of a Remembrance Day poppy on a Celtic shirt, and the more recent Bobby Sands one.
To Findlay, such actions are welcome evidence of engagement. “What really gets me in an age when we have young people who are so politically disengaged, is that you take a group of people who are so politically active, so willing to get out and voice an opinion and to work productively with other organisations, and you suggest they’re a problem,” she says. “Well, they’re a problem to the people who don’t want to hear what they’ve got to say, but in terms of society, I would be more worried about the young people who sit around watching Big Brother, those who have no political involvement.”
To others, however, including the man who ran the Greetin’ Brigade, the group has become a “self-indulgent circus act”. Either way, their activities, which have included letting off flares, could be seen as counter-productive, leading not to an early review of the law, but to bad publicity. “I don’t think the Green Brigade are doing themselves any favours” says McConnachie. “One wonders how many of the people in their section have a clue what these songs are about. Of course, some do, but I’m sure there are many who are going along with the crowd and it’s just a means of noising up the police.”
And that’s before you address last week’s trouble at Fir Park. Though the Green Brigade denies its members were personally responsible, it admits “that as a group that believes in fan control” it should have policed the section better.
Nevertheless it believes the decision to impose a collective punishment on its members is disproportionate. “We cannot see why the alleged misdemeanours of a small minority of people who may not even stand in our section at 111 should impact on everyone who does,” the spokesman says. “If someone deliberately breaks a seat at a football stadium then they should expect that action will be taken against them, and that they may be banned for a period from football games. However if football clubs here wanted to have better relationships with their fans they would do well to look at some of the models from some clubs in Germany and elsewhere, where fans and club directors work consensually on contentious issues and disciplinary matters.”
Though the brigade laments the loss of its section, it has no intention of giving up its fight against the new law. “Wherever you go, you’ll find that Irish communities (like every other diaspora group) express themselves through music and song, singing about past and present events in their motherland,” the spokesman says. “That’s what [our] fans have always done, whether that was Celtic’s founding fathers singing about the Manchester Martyrs and the Fenians, or my granda’s generation singing for Kevin Barry or James Connolly, or my own remembering Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers.
“Now singing about events during conflicts might not be to your personal taste, but the idea that it should be outlawed is utterly ridiculous.”
Nor does the Green Brigade plan to give up its charitable work. A food bank collection outside Celtic Park before the Hearts game will go ahead next Saturday as planned. “We’ve had some great days and fantastic nights in 111 over the past three and a half years of having an official section, so it’s a real disappointment to lose it,” the spokesman says. “It’s definitely not the end of the Green Brigade though. We are far more than just a small section in one corner of Celtic Park, we’re a spirit that will endure and a group of brilliant bhoys and ghirls that will continue to do our thing.” «