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Fans' rights must triumph over politics of discontent

THE recent prevalence of flares and fireworks has coincided with a realisation from Celtic Football Club that a safe distance must be observed when dealing with a group that has become increasingly troublesome, even incendiary.

WHAT THE? A flare lands near Fraser Forster at Fir Park on Friday. Picture: SNS
WHAT THE? A flare lands near Fraser Forster at Fir Park on Friday. Picture: SNS

There will be a mass of tweets, Facebook posts and statements about who or what precisely constitutes the Green Brigade. These are tedious and unhelpful and remind one of the bickering in the Life of Brian about the Popular Front of Judea or the Judean Popular Front. Suffice to say that the miscreants are Naughty Bhoys.

This is not to be overly facetious but to emphasise that the essence of the problem is puerile hooliganism rather than any politically-motivated gestures of defiance or protest. First, there is nothing dignified, misconstrued or sustainable in the actions over poppy, Bobby Sands or whatever other issue one wants to bring into the mix.

One can choose not to wear a poppy and protest over its symbolism. One can choose to champion Bobby Sands as a freedom fighter. But there is compelling argument that these issues have no place at a football club, particularly one that preaches inclusiveness and multi-culturalism. There is an intellectual hooliganism in taking Celtic's undoubted Irish roots and then imposing a set of beliefs on the entire support.

Increasingly, the majority of Celtic fans - a silent majority who are shedding their diffidence - have distanced themselves from the Green Brigade, section 111 or whatever one wants to describe the corner of Celtic Park that houses the noisy section on domestic match days. There was once a level of enjoyment at the imagination and humour shown in the banners. There was even gratitude that the Green Brigade could enliven the most placid of afternoons by song or chant.

However, the relationship between Green Brigade and club broke down when banners, previously described as entirely football related, were unveiled at the AC Milan match. These depicted Sands and William Wallace and were certainly of a political nature. The trust between club and this section of the support evaporated. Celtic were never going to believe anything that the leaders of section 111 would say after this.

These banners also strained the patience of many Celtic supporters. There is an article of faith at Celtic Park that Champions League nights are sacrosanct; a celebration of noise, colour and an emotional rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone.

The display by the Green Brigade also further frustrated those who are tired of the continuing saga that is UEFA and Celtic banners. It followed, too, the H block banner at an Aberdeen match in November. The breaking point for supporters, though, occurred when the scenes at Fir Park on Friday were captured on TV and in photographs. It was heightened by the sheer absurdity of the Green Brigade issuing a statement, regretting that the damage to seats and the throwing of flares "happened on our watch".

Eh? This presumes that the Green Brigade presumes to have some control over the behaviour of fans - a demonstrably false premise - and, even more bizarre, that anyone should pay heed to its public pronouncements as if it were some sort of official, cohesive unit. It is not. Celtic had sought to appease supporters, to head off accusations of being too staid, by coming to accommodations with the Green Brigade. This policy has failed.

An attempt to control the excesses of what might be termed the Celtic Ultras has foundered on repeated infringements, whether they be political posturing or thuggery.

The patience of club and the majority of the support has run out. Celtic, as a plc, face another UEFA inquiry and a rebuke with inevitable financial penalties from the Scottish Professional Football League.

The general support, too, has had enough. Supporters groups were unified in their condemnation of the latest outrages at Fir Park but individuals had already made their feelings clear to club officials. They cried: "Enough."

The dramatic move by Celtic to suspend and then almost certainly ban some fans and dissolve the Green Brigade section is the surest sign that any accommodation with such a group is at an end.

The events at Fir Park, following the Boxing Day yobbery at Dens Park, have placed a doubt over Friday night football. It may have ended the aspiration of clubs to reintroduce standing areas. There is a belief that the police do not support a return to even a limited form of terracing and the hooliganism of recent weeks has strengthened their case.

The 128 fans will be summoned to Celtic Park and questioned by security officials over events at Fir Park. Bans will ensue. The cadre in section 111 will be demobbed, sent to other parts of the ground or given a refund on their season tickets.

There will be those who cry that this is an infringement on the right of fans to express their opinion and a curtailment of the freedom of the individual. This argument has been loudly promulgated but there is a more persuasive case. There is the right of a fan to go to watch his team without being endangered by the actions of others. There is the freedom of the majority to enjoy a game without having to adhere to a political manifesto roared in many cases by those who have no idea of precisely what they are espousing.

What has happened with the Green Brigade cannot be confused with grown-up debate or mature politics or protest. Rather its demise has been marked by a childish, dangerous petulance fuelled by alcohol and the politics of generalised discontent.

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