Tuesday 27 September 2016

Celtic fans may be idiots, but I will still defend their right to wave flags

Published 30/08/2016 | 02:30

'Once you get past the essential absurdity of a bunch of Scottish people masquerading as Irish people pretending to care about the Palestinians, you enter a true test of tolerance – either you’re prepared to let them do what they want as long as they’re not physically harming anyone, or you’re not.' Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
'Once you get past the essential absurdity of a bunch of Scottish people masquerading as Irish people pretending to care about the Palestinians, you enter a true test of tolerance – either you’re prepared to let them do what they want as long as they’re not physically harming anyone, or you’re not.' Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

There was a spectacular stench of hypocrisy surrounding Celtic fans' determination to fly Palestinian flags during their recent Champions League match against Hapoel Be'er Sheva.

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Fans had been warned by the club and Uefa that Celtic would be fined if there was a repeat of the stunt which saw them penalised to the tune of about $20,000 for similar behaviour two years ago against a team from Iceland.

They flew them anyway.

In advance of the incoming Uefa fine, which will be announced next month, supporters have raised the expected figure and more, and have insisted they will continue to fly that particular flag.

It's a scenario which could well become an issue for Dundalk in the forthcoming Europa League, as the league champions also boast a section of fans who like unfurling the Palestinian flag during matches.

Having drawn Hapoel Tel Aviv in their group, sensible fans of the Lilywhites will have been paying close attention to the Celtic situation and hoping they don't see a repeat.

Trying to explain the political and historical reasons why Celtic fans have picked the wrong side in an intractable conflict is futile.

After all, if they had wanted to show solidarity with a regional minority surrounded on all sides by people who want to kill them, they would be flying the Star of David.

But they have picked their side and as ridiculous as that choice may seem to people who have an opposing view, it's precisely those of us who hold that opposing view who should be arguing for their right to fly the flag if they want.

Leaving aside the laughably naïve arguments from the controversial Celtic supporters group The Green Brigade about why they do it - after all, they've shown enough support for the IRA, so it should be no surprise that they also support Hamas - the problem with banning one flag is that you then have to ban them all.

In a worrying sign of the times we live in, it's not unusual to see flags of a country which has been hit by a terrorist attack displayed at a match - we saw American flags after 9/11 and there were plenty of French tricolours at various grounds following the Bataclan attack.

Should they be banned as well, because they are 'political' in nature? Should Spurs and Ajax fans be banned from showing their traditional support of Israel?

If the fans had been waving, say Isil banners, or showing some other public sign of support for a proscribed terrorist organisation, then there's an argument to remove them.

But they weren't.

Similarly, if they had been burning Israeli flags there's an obvious public order offence.

But as much as we may dislike it, they were, lest we forget, flying the flag of a state which is recognised by the Irish Government.

This ultimately boils down to old-fashioned liberalism and the idea that you don't have to like or agree with something to defend its right to exist.

Yet some of the very people who are the first to complain about censorship were happy to see the sanctions against Celtic - simply because they don't agree with the cause being promoted.

That's just not good enough.

We're living in a more fractured and binary society than ever before - people have retreated into their own groups and to even look at things from the 'other' point of view is seen as weakness or concession.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the perma-vexed Israel/Palestine question.

But once you get past the essential absurdity of a bunch of Scottish people masquerading as Irish people pretending to care about the Palestinians, you enter a true test of tolerance - either you're prepared to let them do what they want as long as they're not physically harming anyone, or you're not.

Personally, I think they're a bunch of idiots.

But in a properly functioning society, we don't legislate on the basis of someone's perceived idiocy.

There are numerous ways in which people can argue with Celtic fans but the only thing an official sanction achieves is bestowing on both the supporters and the Palestinians a form of revolutionary chic which neither deserves.

People can, of course, argue that the terrace is not the right forum for political statements.

But that might hold more water if the last few minutes before kick-off in European games weren't taken up by the captains reading public statements promoting whatever Uefa's latest pet project happens to be.

We're living in intolerant times, when people think it's right and proper to ban anything they don't agree with.

Well, I don't agree with the Celtic fans, and I won't agree with any Dundalk fans who wave that bloody flag in the Aviva.

But I will defend their right to do it.

Although any Lilywhites who pull that type of stunt on a street in Tel Aviv may find out that free speech often comes at a price...

Irish Independent

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