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Sunday 18 March 2018

Mail order intolerance ignores Celtic's right to wear the green

I don't think I'd enjoy the company of the Green Brigade, the Celtic supporters who unfurled their anti-poppy banner at Parkhead last weekend.

These are not nuanced men, but they are not alone among football supporters in not being nuanced men.

Last week, the Green Brigade -- the "so-called Green Brigade" as the so-called Daily Mail referred to them -- made a protest against Celtic's wearing of the poppy on their shirts.

For these unreasonable men, this was a reasonable position. A hatred of the British Army is almost written into the Articles of Association of Celtic supporters.

As the Irish Celtic Supporters' Association put it, the British Army's "operations in Ireland (and in other parts of the world) have caused division, loss and rancour on a large scale."

Despite themselves, they provide an insight into the dark heart of Scottish football. The rest of the world can be dealt with in parenthesis. It is Ireland they are concerned with, as if Ireland didn't have enough problems.

When they protested, the Green Brigade were remaining true to their code, a code of self-conscious nationalism, a code which allows Celtic fans to carry without irony a Papal flag. Then again, most of the things they do are without irony. Again, they are not alone in that.

Last week, the Green Brigade were observing, if not the traditions of the club, the traditions of the supporters. The traditions of the supporters who cheered wildly when Artur Boruc blessed himself at Ibrox; the traditions of the supporters who add the words "IRA" to The Fields of Athenry, as if the song wasn't bad enough to begin with.

They were closely following these traditions when they unfurled their banner which, in their eagerness to make a point, they had misspelt.

'No bloostained poppies on our hoops,' the banner read, but the unfortunate misspelling did not dilute the message. In fact, it reinforced it. These people were angry, way too angry to get the spelling right. They couldn't have made it clearer if they'd written it in green ink.

But at some point last week, this debate suddenly turned into one about the merits of wearing a poppy, when it seemed to be more about the right not to wear one.

The poppy is a noble and poignant way to remember the dead from two World Wars. It loses all its value if it becomes obligatory.

Last year, the Daily Mail pursued the clubs who didn't wear a poppy and now, policed by the newspaper, everybody has fallen into line. Even a club like Celtic for whom, at the very least, it is something of a contradiction.

Perhaps, they should be comfortable with the contradictions and wear the poppy on their shirts without pursuing those who feel Celtic shouldn't. After all, if an Irish nationalist can't feel at home at Parkhead, where can he go?

Each side is united by their intolerance but it seems particularly strange that Celtic would want to ban the Green Brigade because of their protest.

In my many years living in England, nobody has ever asked me why I'm not wearing a poppy or insist that I wear one. This liberal tolerance is what makes the country great. If I were to wear a poppy in Ireland, I'm not sure I would receive the same tolerance.

The Green Brigade probably don't have much time for liberal England, but then again neither does the Daily Mail so again they have common ground.

Celtic are now on the hunt for the so-called Green Brigade so they can correct their spelling and ban them from Celtic Park.

There will be those at Celtic who say the club is just about football, but it rarely seems that way.

They might prefer the Green Brigade to disappear so they can concentrate on penetrating new markets but there are no new markets for Scottish football. All that is left is the Old Firm. This is a world where they get worked up about Hugh Dallas, the head of the referees, forwarding on an email with a joke about the Pope during the Pope's visit to Scotland.

Dallas's email showed an image of a road traffic sign with an adult holding a child's hand and the words: "Caution: The Pope is coming".

This was reported as a slur on the Pope. Celtic fans saw it as examples of anti-Catholic bigotry which would suggest they hadn't been paying too much attention to what was going on in the church they love.

On Celtic websites, it was reported as portraying the Pope as "a danger to children". This was the most literal and humourless interpretation, but they always take the most literal and humourless interpretation, a trait they share with their enemies. If you criticise Celtic fans for being Irish nationalists and defenders of Roman Catholicism, they get upset, but not as upset as if somebody criticises Irish nationalism or Roman Catholicism within earshot.

They will insist politics and religion has nothing to do with the club. But they will call anybody Irish who questions their corny nationalism a 'West Brit' as they make their case.

At their heart is a deep intolerance and Celtic, in trying to ban those who made the anti-poppy protest, are showing a great intolerance too.

The Green Brigade are victims now, a position they assume naturally and aggressively.

They believe that all they are doing is defending their people from institutionalised persecution. Last week's events will have done nothing to lessen this sense of persecution.

Even today a club has an identity or it has nothing. Celtic's identity has always been distinct. In the fading world of Scottish football, it's all they've got. It wasn't compromised by the Green Brigade last week but by those who tried to ban them.

Sunday Independent

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