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Bid to quell 'offensive' singing is a political minefield

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There are seminal moments in watching football in childhood that remain vivid as the years gather speed. One remembers sitting on a Glasgow bus before Celtic hosted Rangers in the New Year derby match at Celtic Park in 1988.


A man draped in Celtic garb could be viewed waltzing on to the bus with what resembled a carrier bag brimming with bananas. In an era when men sported Graeme Souness moustaches and Frank McAvennie mullets as standard practice, the sight of fruit in Glasgow's East End seemed like an odd occurrence, even before the latest helping of a fractious fixture that has never ceased to throw up large sequences of unplanned mayhem.


It later transpired that the bananas - or an 'assortment of fruit' as the television commentator Archie Macpherson later described them that evening - were intended for the black player Mark Walters, a winger who had signed for Rangers from Aston Villa hours before the match.


The bananas shamefully lay strewn before a saturated 'Jungle' area of the old Celtic Park, a spot not far from where Celtic's vociferous band of supporters known as the 'Green Brigade' can be found on match days in the revamped ground. This singing section of ultras support the team while also making their political feelings on wider issues, especially relating to the political make-up of Ireland, be known.


It has been 23 years since Walters was racially abused at Celtic Park. With a mission statement that describes itself as 'a broad front of anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-sectarian Celtic supporters', it is perhaps inconceivable that a member of the Green Brigade or the wider Celtic-minded family would racially abuse a player, but old habits die hard in small splinter groups of the Glasgow club's vast support.


Celtic have endured problems policing IRA chants away from home, but their emergence on their own doorstep in recent times is something that must be handled with the realisation that while they may be offensive/illicit and unwanted, such chants may not be illegal.


In avoiding fraternising with the traditional Scottish media obsession to lump Celtic in with Rangers as part of the Old Firm package, Celtic would be healthier for lancing this festering, historical boil. Celtic Park is private land, and the club should be entitled to ban unruly guests who fail to show the required level of decorum in watching the team, but there is not much else that they can do.


UEFA have decided to study footage of Celtic's match with Rennes apparently after Strathclyde Police made the match delegate aware of 'offensive singing'. Celtic will be called before European football's governing body next month to face a charge that songs of an 'unsporting nature' were sung at the Europa League contest.


Songs glorifying the IRA may not be filed under the sectarian category, but they remain unsavoury even if they are argued away as political. These songs are unnecessary, irrelevant and damaging to Celtic - who have a body of award-winning supporters on the continent - and Scotland's reputation. More pertinently, they are offensive to many people, some of whom share the same stadium when watching Celtic.


Personally, I think they soil the atmosphere of football because they are offensive, but offensive and criminal behaviour are separate strands.


"It is offensive," commented the QC and Celtic fan Paul McBride, a figure who has represented manager Neil Lennon in recent times. "What do you say to a 10-year-old child who asks his father why people are singing about killers at a football game? There is no answer to that."


In every sense, fans who damage their club's standing by singing IRA songs are a rogue element, almost rebels without a cause. They are hijacking the club crest and the club's Irish background to further an ideal that surely has no place at Celtic Park.


Fans are entitled to be in love with Celtic's Irish heritage and the story of the club's beginnings, but there are plenty of other traditional Irish folk songs that can be sung without stinking the place out. That being acknowledged, is it right to demonise such fans?


As two enormous clubs in the relative backwater of the Scottish Premier League, it is no coincidence that Rangers and now Celtic have been earmarked for treatment from the authorities, but there is a wider debate to be had on what constitutes 'offensive' singing, and what is punishable.


A fine would seem the likely outcome to embarrass Celtic, but it will be interesting to see whether or not Europe's governing body go after the blue-chip names of Barcelona and Real Madrid on similar grounds. How far will UEFA's bid to silence 'illicit' chanting stretch? It is one thing making an example of a club, or making a scapegoat of them.

Celtic and Rangers are hardly in splendid isolation in having fans espousing political idealogy, however warped it may seem to others. National anthems from all over the globe could be held up as offensive, political and unsporting on similar grounds. Upon initial inspection, it seems a good human rights lawyer could have a field day with UEFA's criteria for what constitutes 'illicit' chanting in this sphere.


Eddie Smith, the former referee turned Strathclyde policeman, who apparently shopped Celtic to UEFA without notifying the club, surely has a duty to encourage similar happenings throughout Scotland.


Will East Fife fans be reported for singing 'they are dirty and smelly..and come from near Lochgelly..the Cowden family' or St Mirren's mascot Paisley Panda be banged up for coming out dancing to Cher's 'gypsies, tramps and thieves' when Morton pay a visit? Or will a Scotland fan be fined for wearing a 'we hate Jimmy Hill' t-shirt?


What about a Celtic supporter carrying a Palestinian flag? Is this deemed to be offensive? I recall working for an international news organisation in past times, and being told to dispense with using the word 'terrorist' in connection with mentioning paramilitary groups because one man's terrorist group is another man's freedom fighter, however uncomfortably this may sit with some people.


On the surface, proposed new laws to tackle sectarianism, bigotry and racism in Scotland are fraught with peril, because they do not appear to make clear what or what is not offensive. In attempting to protect freedom of speech and freedom of expression, it is a dangerous road to go down.


Without strict guidelines, the whole legislation drafted by the Scottish National Party could serve to encourage the notion of police harrassment. An Orwellian society is just as unwelcome as one that endorses songs saluting terrorist groups. Celtic and Rangers may be fierce rivals in football, but their fans share a common ground on the subject of freedom of speech.


In every respect, ridding Celtic Park of IRA ditties is an initiative that should be welcomed, but the lines quickly become blurred on what else is deemed legitimate. Anti-IRA songs would also have to be outlawed on the same grounds. Unlike the obvious and awful racism Walters suffered in the late 1980s, the issue of 'illicit' singing is far from black and white.



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Not a bad piece imo.

We ARE getting carried away "sticks and stones will break my bones but now, apparently, names in fact will hurt me

To think this contrived nonsense began with the offensive "hokey kokey", followed by the "famine song".

Both ditties which took a bit of explaining as to why they were offensive have become the major talking point home and abroad.

Has bhaine succeeded in causing unrest and divisiveness in our society where there was very little before I wonder ?


Ask yourselves this, are you more anti Irish Catholic before or after bhaine began his campaign of agitation ?

Before his nonsense infiltrated the internet, I had not given such a notion a moment's thought; now I'm sorry to say have to think before before I answer.

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