Joan McAlpine: Sing out for a country free of prejudice and hate

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If a song is abusive then it shouldn’t be sung, but because I said so I’m a target for sectarian bullies on the internet

REMEMBER when we used to talk of the “green ink brigade”? These were folk whose dudgeon was so high that they took considerable trouble to vent it. They’d regularly reach for pen and paper, put stamps on envelopes and trek to the nearest post box to spread their malice. DNA advances mean you cannot lick an envelope in anger these days without being traced, but the green ink brigade have not disappeared – they have just migrated to the internet and multiplied like mice behind a skirting board.

As a journalist and blogger I always felt confident about navigating my way through cyberspace with some dexterity – at least until last week when I happened to send a tweet after watching my fellow Scotsman columnist and Labour Party stalwart Michael Kelly discuss the government’s offensive behaviour bill on the STV programme Scotland Tonight.

I disagree with Mr Kelly’s position that the Offensive Behaviour and Football and Threatening Communications Bill victimises football fans. He attempted to distinguish between different kinds of songs supporting the IRA – an argument I have heard before. This line of thinking suggests that pre-Provisional IRA songs, many of which date back centuries, are historical and inoffensive.

One could argue that the Irish national anthem, The Soldier’s Song, was supportive of the IRA, while The Boys of the Old Brigade was played this year when The Queen visited Dublin. Exactly the same argument could be made for some Ulster unionist songs too. An old favourite such as The Sash is a celebration of religious and political identity which does not advocate attacking Catholics.

But there are circumstances in which these songs, for pragmatic reasons of public safety should not be sung. That includes a football match. The heated atmosphere of the Old Firm means “folk songs” take on a far more sinister tone. And these are the borderline ballads – straightforward chants of “Up the ‘Ra” and “F*** the Pope” as well as The Billy Boys really shouldn’t be the subject of any discussion whatsoever.

So I disagreed with Mr Kelly when he appeared to be arguing that IRA songs of a certain vintage were no more offensive than Flower of Scotland. The issue is one of context. Rugby fans don’t attack each other after singing Flower of Scotland. That is the point of the bill. Sometimes, different rules apply to different situations.

I tweeted something about Mr Kelly defending the indefensible and praised Paul McBride QC – who has also condemned IRA singing. This led to my being vilified by Celtic supporters who immediately assumed I was ignoring anti-Catholic abuse dished out by a few on the other side. The unreasonableness of these attacks really stung, given that I have written about the experiences of the Celtic manager Neil Lennon.

I responded to the Celtic critics with the words: “The main problem is anti-Catholic chants leading to sectarian violence but we need to be pragmatic, IRA chants must end too.” I then acknowledged that few Celtic fans sing these songs – I should have made the same point about the Rangers support, but such is the hazard of summarising your views in 140 characters.

There are some football fans for whom irrationality is a badge of authenticity. For these people, life is one long poor refereeing decision. Within minutes my comments were posted out of context on a Rangers website and were flying round the internet quicker than fans heading for the pie stand at half-time.

I was accused of defending terrorist child killers and IRA singing. One insisted he had it on good authority that I had attended Bobby Sands’ funeral. I was variously a cow, boot, soapdodger and worse. All of the really nasty ones were anonymous, prominently displaying union flags and rejoicing in names like “Wilhem”, “Bouncy” and “girvanloyalist”. One asked me menacingly whether I felt safe.

It was a bizarre and frightening experience – more so because I had been so deliberately misrepresented. I began by condemning songs in support of the IRA and ended up being vilified as their apologist. So for the sake of clarity, let me repeat my views in more than 140 characters. Most commentators agree that offensive singing is not confined to one side but there has been a particular problem with a section of the Ibrox crowd. The figures released on sectarian offences last week show that Catholics are more likely to be victims, despite being a minority – so clearly we need to tackle that.

Sterling efforts have been made by some Rangers supporters’ groups recently at self-policing, such as stopping singing of the Famine Song and The Billy Boys. That is to be applauded. Celtic had a long history of self-policing and had largely eradicated IRA chants at Parkhead, but not among the travelling support. Now a backlash against the bill has resulted in more pro-IRA singing, both at home and away. This is completely unacceptable and, as the club itself has said, brings shame on the vast majority of decent people who support Celtic.

Suggesting that IRA singing is political as opposed to sectarian, and should therefore be treated differently to chants about wading through Fenian blood, is disingenuous. The approaching 1916 centenary has led some Irish academics to re-examine the war that followed the uprising. There were atrocities on all sides and that included attacks on Protestants, including one particularly notorious incident in Cork. The indiscriminate bombing from the 1970s onwards claimed innocent lives on all sides.

It is a disgrace to Scotland that football allows some warped individuals to stoke up sporting rivalry on the back of those killing times. Maybe one day, centuries hence, it will be nothing more than an old folk song, but the wounds remain raw today. That is why an overwhelming 91 per cent of Scots in a recent poll wanted more done to tackle sectarianism. That is why everyone who cares about Scotland, Ireland and our international reputation should support the bill.

• Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the south of Scotland