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Football and flags: Why Celtic fans back the Palestinian cause

Scottish club's followers have always shown solidarity towards the dispossessed and oppressed

By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling

Michael they are taking you away

For you stole Trevelyan’s corn

So the young might see the morn.

Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay…

By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young man calling

Nothing matters Mary when you're free,

Against the Famine and the Crown

I rebelled, they ran me down

Now you must raise our child with dignity.

This verse is from a song that Celtic football fans sing called The Fields of Athenry. Written during the 1970s, it tells the story of a family dispossessed of their land and left starving due to the Great Irish Famine of the mid 19th-century.

Due to hunger, the husband is caught stealing food from the person who took his land. He is imprisoned and transported to Australia: his wife is left to fend for herself and their child.

Celtic supporters are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause because their ancestral story is, for the most part, similar. To understand why Celtic fans are vocal about the struggle of the Palestinians, you need to understand where many Celtic fans come from.

Celtic fans backed anti-apartheid movement

The dispossession and hunger during the famine - which left more than one million dead - and the devastation on the land and psyche of the survivors forced a diaspora of Irish people all over the globe. Many settled in Glasgow, Scotland. The massive influx into the city of poor Irish people, fleeing due to dispossession of land, poverty or general necessity, was a huge burden on the residents.

But Victorian Glasgow was not tolerant of these interlopers, who they deemed to be racially, culturally and, by their Catholic faith, religiously inferior.

Celtic Football Club was formed in 1887 by Brother Walfrid, a Catholic cleric, in order to generate revenue to feed the Irish immigrants resident in Glasgow and relieve their poverty. Eventually it became a beacon of hope and source of pride to dispossessed people.

The flying of the Palestinian flag by Celtic fans in the European tie against Hapoel Beersheva last week has made headlines in newspapers and across social media. However, it is not a new phenomenon: Celtic fans fly Palestinian flags every week during games. Supporters have been showing solidarity with the people of Palestine for as long as I can remember: first it was badges, then it was kaffiyehs and now it's flags.

'By waving the Palestinian flag, Celtic fans were not choosing a side between Hamas and Fatah, or endorsing any of their political viewpoint'

Celtic fans have also shown solidarity with the oppressed people of South Africa under apartheid, the Basque people seeking independence from Spain and, of course, due to the club's cultural heritage, the oppression and persecution of nationalists in the north of Ireland. The majority of these areas of conflict have been resolved amicably: the plight of the Palestinians has become increasingly worse.

By waving the Palestinian flag, Celtic fans were not choosing a side between Hamas and Fatah, or endorsing any of their political viewpoints. It was done to show solidarity with the people of Palestine.

Similarly, when the Green Brigade - a group of Celtic supporters - recently unveiled a banner stating “Refugees welcome, a club founded by immigrants,” they were not advocating a side in the Syrian conflict, but showing their backing for the plight of refugees.

Fans will not back down and roll over

Solidarity towards the dispossessed and oppressed is easy for the Celtic fan to understand and relate to and makes us sympathetic towards others suffering the same plight.

What Celtic fans don’t seem to understand is how others don’t get it. UEFA, and much of the media, miss the fact that Celtic fans are not anti-Israel and certainly not anti-Semitic. There is no group of supporters I know of who are less sympathetic to fascists and the extreme far-right.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for Celtic supporters to be targeted by far-right thugs on European trips for our anti-fascist/anti-Nazi views. History has shown that Celtic fans and Palestinians have few friends in the media.

Celtic supporters show their support for the Palestinian cause by waving flags (AFP)
When Celtic were paired with Israeli team Hapoel Beersheva in the Champions League tie, everyone knew there would be Palestinian flags on show. Everyone knew that UEFA would sidestep the real reason the flags were there and that the club would be fined.

If Celtic beat Hapoel Beersheva on Tuesday evening and progress into the Champions League group stages, there will still be Palestinian flags on show among the Celtic fans, regardless of who our opposition is. If UEFA decide to be more punitive, as some have advocated, and close down one of Celtic’s stands in a future game, then I guarantee that there will be even more Palestinian flags at the next match.

At this point Celtic Football Club would be forced to challenge UEFA rather than just pay the punitive fine because Celtic know that although their fans love their team and the ethos that permeates through the club, we will stubbornly, like most Scots, not back down and roll over when we are in the right.

Celtic supporters have pledged to match any fine that UEFA may impose on the club for flying the Palestinian flag, with all donations raised going to Medical Aid Palestine (MAP) and to the Lajee Centre, a Palestinian creative cultural children’s centre in Aida Refugee Camp, Bethlehem.

Within 24 hours Celtic fans had passed their initial target of £40,000 ($52,700): at time of writing the sum stood at $125,000.

Waving of the flag? It's not a negative act

The argument that UEFA has made - that there is no place for political expression or politics in football - would be hilarious if it wasn’t so ridiculous. Right now Celtic are in Beersheva, which is 20 miles from Gaza, which the Israeli military has bombed this week. How can you divorce football from the reality of people?

Football and political expression have been interwoven since people started kicking things that roll at each other. Throughout history, often the only place where people could congregate and voice a political opinion without fear of arrest and persecution was at a public stadium.

The flying of the Palestinian flag by Celtic fans is not a negative. It is not there to be waved in the face of the opposition as an attempt to upset and annoy others. It is done to remind the people of Palestine, wherever in the world they may be, that they are not alone and that they are not forgotten.

Marc Patrick Conaghan is a self-employed political consultant who works with political parties and political candidates at various levels in the US and the UK. Most importantly, he is a season ticket holder at Celtic Park @marcconaghan

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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