We’re all off to Glasgow in the Green: in defence of the Green Brigade

Jamie Lewis comments on the two-match ban imposed on Celtic supporters the Green Brigade.

Image: Leigh Blackall/Flickr

I don’t think I have seen anything like the Celtic fans in all the stadiums I have played.

– Xavi

Parkhead, Celtic FC’s home ground, has a well-earned colloquial moniker: Paradise. The best players in international football regularly speak in awe of the decibel level reached in Glasgow’s East End during Champions League ties. Barcelona’s megastars, who, after succumbing to the Bhoys in 2012 – the winner being scored by a 19-year-old from Coatbridge who now struggles to hold on to a spot in Charlton’s starting eleven – spoke, with apparent sincerity, of having been privileged to be a part of such an occasion. And yet for the next two home games, including a qualifier for this season’s European Cup, Celtic will play in front of a marginally smaller, but significantly quieter crowd. The suits in the Club’s boardroom have banned the internationally famous and proudly notorious Green Brigade.

The Terrorist or the Dreamer, The Savage or the Brave?

Football is played and watched for entertainment. It is a cultural activity. As such, like film, music or theatre, it is an arena for opposing ideologies to compete for dominance. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci claimed culture is “how class is lived” and is consequently key to revolutionary change. It determines how people perceive the world and their place in it, and thus ultimately determines their “ability to imagine how it might be changed, and whether they see such changes as feasible or desirable”. To watch football is to live the class system and experience its contradictions and conflicts. Oppressive ideas can be celebrated or challenged on the terraces and fans often enter into open hostilities with those that run their clubs, whose interests rarely coincide with their own. At most stadiums in Britain it is often reactionary voices that are heard the loudest. This does not go unnoticed by those on the pitch – what other explanation could be offered for the fact that the only Premier League player to come out as gay since the league’s founding in 1992 has been the German Thomas Hitzlsperger who came out only after his retirement from professional football?

At Celtic the battle for ideological hegemony between kick-off and full-time has taken a different, more radical tone. For the past decade a clash between certain elements of the club’s support base and its board has been unambiguously political and increasingly antagonistic.

The Green Brigade formed in 2006 with the aim of bringing ‘colour and noise’ back to Paradise, after a recent stadium renovation had seemingly left the home support less rowdy. The group split from the Jungle Bhoys, an earlier, now defunct organisation with the same goal. The split was overtly political. It represented a shift to the left of almost exclusively younger fans. From the founding meetings in Glasgow pubs the Green Brigade was avowedly anti-fascist and spoke of the “the special values and ethos ingrained within the Celtic support”, these being defined by Irish republicanism and solidarity with those fighting for Palestinian liberation. This was a conscious cultural intervention on the part of leftists, comparable to Rock Against Racism’s campaign to turn music into a weapon to fight Nazis.

In using a pastime as a platform for challenging capitalist hegemony, the group opened up a new front in what Gramsci termed the ‘war of position’. He defined this as the battle revolutionaries must wage to advance an alternative narrative to the ruling class’s prejudiced and contradictory justifications for how our society operates – bourgeois ‘common sense’. A mass of militant intellectuals is needed to replace oppressive thinking with ‘good sense’, a worldview that places class as the motor for self-emancipation. This might appear as a gross exaggeration. The Green Brigade is, after all, not an anticapitalist organisation. In principle though, these radical ultras play that exact role within the confines of football stadiums. They drag their club’s culture, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the left.

In Celtic’s case, the youth element should not be underestimated. The Green Brigade has attracted a large following amongst extremely politicised teenage fans. In the context of the Scottish independence referendum and the recent return of the Irish question to mainstream British politics, this is a hugely important development. Of course, for many on either side of the Irish Sea the discrimination at the heart of the British state is ingrained in their daily lives, but a sense of escalation has dominated recent times. The party of loyalist murderers holds sway over a pathetically weak government, Stormont’s power-sharing arrangements are in disarray, Sinn Fein speak of the Good Friday Agreement being breached and the EU referendum has made the Irish border a matter of deep significance again. The Orange fascists evidently feel momentum is on their side. This marching season saw 9,000 participants and supporters file in to Glasgow Green for their annual ‘celebration’ of the Battle of the Boyne. They were described as having a ‘renewed sense of purpose’, and revelled in triumphalism following the SNP’s recent electoral walloping. A new generation is grappling with these challenges and ideas and Celtic’s young ultras culture is an arena in which left-wing Irish republicanism seeks to provide answers.

Last week’s ban is the latest in a series of hostilities. The Green Brigade’s life began with a few years of minor conflict with officials and stewards over the logistics of the new group. Tension temporarily subsided when in the 2010-11 season, they were given a block of 300 seats, which has now risen to a ‘safe standing’ section with a capacity of 2,900. A detailed history of the group is available on its website and it illustrates a short, yet proud tradition of working-class, internationalist solidarity. The Brigade’s reputation for principled, poetic, political protest was properly cemented in November 2010 when, in opposition to the inclusion of the poppy on Celtic’s home strip, they dropped banners delivering a message to the British state:

Your deeds would shame all the devils in Hell – Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan – No bloodstained poppy on our hoops.

A threat of lifetime bans from the Club (meaning the institution and its apparatuses) was never acted upon as it was obvious the Brigade’s message had support beyond the group’s members. Since then, similar displays have featured Bobby Sands and a message of condemnation directed at Leigh Griffiths (a Celtic striker who was filmed singing a racist song about former Hearts player Rudi Skacel); the Brigade has consistently linked its politics to international struggles against oppression. Following an Old Firm derby last season in which Rangers fans racially abused Celtic player Scott Sinclair, the Green Brigade’s banners read “Anti-racism is beautiful, wonderful” (a reference to their song about the player to the tune of The Logical Song). That same day before kick-off, banners expressed support for Palestinian hunger strikers with the quote ‘Hungering for justice’, drawn from the Irish rebel song Roll of Honour. Where else in the UK can you find thousands of people, primarily under-thirty-somethings, drawing parallels between the IRA hunger strikers and those fighting Israeli apartheid today? Another ever-present banner in the section demands ‘Football for all’, with a rainbow flag and an image of a refugee family. While the focus here is on their attempts to maintain and develop a radical counterculture to the match day experience, it should be noted as well that the Brigade’s work as a campaigning group fighting homelessness has also been widely praised.

Image: Leigh Blackall/Flickr

You ruled with an iron hand

Punishments for such displays have been harsh and frequent. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), European football’s governing body, has fined the club to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds in recent years. One such fine – of £75,000 – was for a large display of Palestinian flags, which the organisation describes as an ‘Offensive Banner.’ The flag of the Israeli state, on the other hand, is apparently perfectly acceptable. The repression was met by a similar, much larger display and a fundraising attempt organised by the Green Brigade to ‘match the fine’, which eventually raised over £175,000 for Palestinian aid organisations.

Meanwhile the state has been emboldened by the SNP’s ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football’ act, which has served to effectively criminalize Irish republican sentiment in stadiums by banning the singing of certain songs under the guise of anti-sectarianism. Arrests, intimidation and criminal records are the crux of a law that sees no distinction between a love song written from the perspective of Easter Rising martyr Joseph Plunkett, marrying his lover hours before his execution by British occupiers, and a song, popular with certain sections of Rangers’ support base, which boasts of being ‘up to our ankles in Fenian blood’.

The Club’s board – which until recently included the Tory peer Lord Livingston – has found itself walking a tightrope. The bosses profit from the Brigade’s presence in the stadium, while simultaneously wanting rid of it. The ultras maintain the famously boisterous atmosphere that keeps attendances up throughout the season, even when Celtic’s dominance of the Scottish Premiership is not in doubt. The club shop even sells framed prints of tifos – mosaic displays created by thousands of fans holding up coloured pieces of plastic or paper – organised, at no small financial cost, by the Green Brigade. However, the board desperately wants to dodge any potential UEFA or Scottish Football Association bans that might harm revenues, and would never want to offend what Roy Keane called the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ – those who prefer to watch football not from terraces but from corporate hospitality boxes, and who spend significantly more than most fans on match days.

To strengthen their position, club officials have employed that favourite tactical cliché of the ruling class, ‘divide and conquer’, to great effect. Using the threat of UEFA fines, they are able to ferment division between ultras whose protests are potentially financially damaging to Celtic’s coffers, and ‘ordinary’ fans who simply want to watch 11 overpaid men kick a bag of wind around for an hour and a half. A large section of the Parkhead crowd has taken to drawing an arbitrary line to distinguish which references to Irish republicanism are acceptable and which aren’t. For instance, it appears that Fields of Athenry, a folk song set during the famine, is fine, but anything referencing events from 1916 onwards, not so much.

A much wider political context is of course being exploited here. The British state has worked tirelessly for decades to publicly establish the notion that armed groups of rebel and loyalist persuasions are both as bad as each other (despite having collaborated with the latter throughout the Troubles.) While that notion might not be met with overwhelming support at Parkhead, there is a powerful desire to confine past battles to history.

This is not the first time that the multifaceted backlash against the Green Brigade has taken the form of a ban. The Brigade boycotted games for nine months after the club disbanded their section in a spurious and tenuous attempt to link damage done to Motherwell’s home ground on an away trip to the group. They later returned and have since maintained a fractious relationship with the club’s officials that broke down again following displays at two recent home games, leading to the latest attempt at exclusion.

Their lullabies and battle cries and songs of hope and joy

The games at which the offending displays took place were the final fixture of last season, played against Hearts, and last week’s Champions League qualifier against Linfield. The former saw around 15 flares let off by the Green Brigade to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the club’s victory in the 1967 European Cup final, and the latter saw banners referencing armed struggles against the British occupation of Ireland; fans were also accused of blocking stairways, leading to a UEFA disciplinary investigation. Fans’ testimony, and plentiful photographic evidence, quite clearly show that the blocking of stairways resulted from a dramatically increased police presence within the section itself. The question of Irish rebel songs was, as always, present, although the club’s attempts to pin the phenomenon solely on the Green Brigade will be made difficult by videos showing thousands of fans outside of the ultra’s standing area joining in with the rebel song ‘Broad Black Brimmer’. Last week the issue exploded online, as the club’s official Twitter account posted a statement stating that the Green Brigade will be banned for the next two home games and accusing the Brigade of ‘seriously tarnishing the club’s hard-won reputation’. This was met with a furious row over who Celtic belongs to and the politics that make up the club’s identity. It is a massive, though, as earlier discussed, not entirely unpredictable, disappointment that many fans have sided with the board and UEFA.

In the context of Orangeist sectarians propping up the party of the ruling class to form a government and a radicalised Scottish youth with very few outlets for political dissent, the Green Brigade has been essential to forming and maintaining a left-wing culture among Celtic’s supporters. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised. The Brigade represents the potential of football to be more than an exercise in lining the pockets of millionaires. This summer’s transfer window has already seen a grotesque amount of money change hands across Britain, while the rest of us live with the effects of a decade of austerity. The Green Brigade is one sign that another footballing world is possible, but its influence is minimal when it is denied entry to Parkhead.

A solution to the current impasse is not immediately identifiable. The club will look to take this opportunity to damage the Green Brigade’s standing amongst the wider fanbase and weaken the group’s ability to organise further protests. A radical group of Irish republican ultras are never going to be able to peacefully coexist with the suits that exist to bleed money from football fans. This is not the place for a polemic on what football could be were the parasites in the boardroom driven out. The Green Brigade’s best hope lies in gaining the support of a large enough portion of the rest of the Parkhead crowd as to prohibit the board from acting. As things stand, that goal is still a way off. To get to that point, the militant struggle against British imperialism that has defined much of Irish history needs to be detoxified. Last year’s commemorative events to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising contributed to that detoxification, particularly when focusing on Scottish involvement in 1916. The stories of lesser-known Scottish participants such as the revolutionary feminist ‘schoolteacher turned sniper’ Margaret Skinnider are receiving greater recognition alongside those of more established combatants, such as the Edinburgh-born James Connolly. For now, however, the words of one of Celtic’s most historic songs seem less like a celebratory ballad than a demand:

Let the people sing their stories and their songs
And the music of their native land
Their lullabies and battle cries and songs of hope and joy
So join us hand in hand.

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