Political sectarianism is still sectarianism!

One of the interesting aspects of the recent ‘Green Brigade’ furore is how quickly some in the media and political world jumped to their defence and painted them as the victims of police brutality. Of-course, the police have their faults, but it’s usually normal to wait until we have all the evidence before assuming that arrests for assault and misuse of drugs have no basis.

Strathclyde police were certainly shocked at the partisan nature of the criticism from high-profile figures, but this is their own naivety, as some have just been waiting for the opportunity. When the anti-sectarian crusade in football started, it mainly focused on Rangers fans. This was fine for many, as the established ‘Old Firm problem’ was soon deftly framed so as to only blame those at Ibrox.

Instead of looking at the larger picture of religion, football and the Irish troubles as the source of hatred - which would bring in both sets of fans - offending religion was made the ultimate taboo, while support for violent nationalism was called ‘political’. It should never have been this way. One of the architects of the previous anti-sectarian motions through Parliament, the late Donald Gorrie, pointed out that, ‘sectarianism is a convenient shorthand term to cover a complex issue, which is partly religious, partly historical, partly political and racial.’

Even though both sets of fans were expressing their tribal support for one side of Irish (and British) history versus another, the Rangers fans were demonised because some leaned towards religious sectarianism, while the Celtic supporters’ overt political sectarianism was ignored or defended.

‘But it’s not sectarian’ has now become a term to excuse bad behaviour. Singing songs about Rangers fans dying, including children, in the Ibrox disaster is bad, ‘but it’s not sectarian’. Chanting in support of terrorist groups who killed innocent people just because of their nationality is bad, ‘but it’s not sectarian’. Actual violence, whether it be against the police, stewards or opposition ball-boys is to be frowned upon, ‘but it’s not sectarian’. Yet, some idiot who shouts ‘F*ck the Pope’ is the ultimate evil because ‘it’s sectarian’. Morality soon becomes secondary to a label. How offended you are is decided by who says it, and not by what is said.

This reached a peak with the ‘summit’ convened by Alex Salmond after Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist bumped chests for two seconds after a Celtic versus Rangers game. There was great hysteria about sectarianism at the time, so the First Minister decided to show he was ‘doing something’ by furthering police powers surrounding football. But laws for religious sectarianism already existed, and with the complaint that political sectarianism was being ignored, his Government broadened the law to include anything offensive. Hence the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012’.

The police were happy, because as shown in the written submission to the Justice Committee for the new bill, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland' (ACPOS) confirmed that the focus on religious sectarianism is detrimental to defeating the hatred that surrounds the totality of sectarianism because:

‘there would not appear to be scope to capture, other than to badge it under inciting public disorder, those who sing or chant politically sectarian messages that are pro/anti IRA, UVF, UDA, Fenian, Hun etc that are intended to offend other people.’ (Their emphasis.)

Even the leading anti-sectarian organisation ‘Nil by Mouth’ (NbM) in their submission stated that:

‘We must accept that the word ‘sectarianism’ transcends its dictionary meaning when applied to Scotland. [But] NbM understands that sectarianism in Scotland is a fusion of religion, politics, identity and ignorance. The context in which a particular act is performed, or certain word is spoken, is also highly significant. [My emphasis]

Those who understand real-life know that the young lad being chased by thugs while they shout ‘up the Ra’ is just as sectarian as the thugs who chase another shouting ‘F*ck the Pope’. Neither is a theological or political expression. It might as well be baby noises, since the tribalism is basically ‘them’ and ‘us’ and it doesn’t matter the excuse. Using semantics to divide behaviour that has the same source, intent and result is bizarre, yet this is what happened.

But now Celtic fans had a problem. Their ‘political’ excuse no longer held. Semantics didn’t matter since the criteria was offensiveness, and no longer just religion. As Dr Stuart Waiton of Arbertay University, author of a good book on the issue called ‘Snob’s Law’, and who genuinely believes in freedom of speech regardless whether it is political or religious, says:

‘An important part of the [Offensive Behaviour] bill was that the law now targeted not only Rangers ‘sectarian’ songs, but also Celtic republican or ‘political’ songs that offend some people: Thus, ‘evening things up’. [And] despite the limited overt promotion of the need to stop IRA type songs, politicians like Alex Salmond, and senior police officers were very clear about what needed to be done. ‘These people’, were bringing the game into disrepute. They were ‘unacceptable in a modern tolerant Scotland’. They were part of ‘Scotland’s Shame’ and needed to be stamped out. And so it has come to pass….Nobody should be surprised that the Green Brigade, a pro Irish Republican singing section of Celtic supporters, have been targeted by the police in the way they have been.’

While Dr Waiton is against all forms of censorship, and has as a better grasp of this issue than nearly everyone else, he still does not realise that freedom of speech is not the goal for the Green Brigade, or the politicians and journalists who are defending them. If the Offensive Behaviour Bill is repealed, many who support Dr Waiton will drop him quickly and denigrate him once he asks for the same with religious offensiveness.

He might think he knows this, as he is aware some Celtic fans want to sing their songs while stopping Rangers fans and vice versa, but it’s doubtful he realises how many of the high-profile people who tell him they support or defend the right to sing about the IRA or violent Irish republicanism under the freedom of speech angle, will never do the same for violent loyalism or offending religion. Already journalist Graham Spiers will quote him in a positive way with regard to his defence of the Green Brigade, but on twitter will more than once call him ‘bonkers’.

In an interesting article on the 28th of February 2012, by ‘The Herald’ journalist Gerry Braiden, who has been pushing hard against the new bill, called ‘Fears over police misuse of anti-sectarian powers’ there was a list of quotes from ‘leading lawyers’ who seemed to be giving their objective viewpoint. One was from:

‘Paul Kavanagh, director of Glasgow and Edinburgh based legal firm Gildeas, [who] said: "While going on holiday with their families, people who have been recognised at football matches by the police are stopped routinely at Glasgow Airport. It is correct for people who sing sectarian songs or shout sectarian insults to be arrested and processed through the courts. However, what about a person displaying a banner that is not sectarian in anyway, simply walking to a football match and being told to provide his name and address to police for no apparent reason, or walking down the street with his family and being spoken to by the police as they recognised him at a football match? Where is their right to privacy? Where is the crime?’

Notice that Mr Kavanagh of Gildeas goes out of his way to state that sectarianism, which we assume is of the religious variety and not the political idiocy, is to still be stamped on. Is this really about censorship or freedom of speech? Interestingly, according to Gildeas’s own twitter account, they are the ‘legal representatives of the Green Brigade’. This wasn’t mentioned in the article.

Another who has given support to the Green Brigade, and who is a perfect example of the double-standards being discussed, is the aforementioned sportswriter Graham Spiers. He is known as an anti-sectarian campaigner who shows zero tolerance for religious sectarianism. Yet when discussing political sectarianism there is great doubt, going to the extreme where he says IRA chants from Celtic fans are a ‘complication’.

This is not to say he supports any of the IRA stuff - he is genuinely against it - but he holds different standards for religious and political sectarianism. ‘Is this stuff political or is it sectarian?’ he bemoans, as if singing about those who murder innocent people needs a proper label.

And before the excuse is given that Graham Spiers thinks the IRA songs are about 1916, he doesn’t. He has previously written that it is not convincing to say that IRA chants from Celtic fans are a reference to a 100 year old Irish liberation movement. Instead, it is support for the terrorists of recent times. There is nothing less political, or more sectarian, than killing innocent people because of their background, yet chanting in support for the IRA is ‘complicated’ because many fans believe ‘Celtic FC is a symbol of the historic struggle of the Irish’. While, with no hint of embarrassment, he writes that a Rangers fan who wants to include non-violent British or Protestant identity at Ibrox is, ‘sounding a bit like a caveman’.

Why the difference? When Graham Spiers defends the expression of violent Irish republicanism does he really understand what it is or that it’s not the same as Irish culture? Are we to believe he thinks Rangers fans singing about loyalism is complicated or part of the Irish struggle too? Will any politician or journalist defend Rangers fans as they glorify loyalist paramilitaries for their equally heinous crimes against innocent people? Of-course not – and nor should they - yet supporting the IRA is somehow valid.

The fight to repeal the Offensive Behaviour Bill has begun, and that isn’t all bad since it is a draconian piece of legislation, but Rangers fans should be under no illusion that for many this is not about freedom of speech or a battle against censorship, but the right to glorify violent Irish Republicanism while still keeping violent loyalism and religious sectarianism taboo. The ideal state for many within the game is where Rangers fans will be demonised for singing their offensive songs, while Celtic fans will be ignored or defended for theirs.