When I wrote, last week, about the planned Palestinian flag protest I speculated on whether the gesture would do any good. Less than a week later, it’s clear that I was wrong to doubt my fellow Celtic fans, because they’ve accomplished what they set out to do and a heck of a lot more besides.
This issue nagged at me all last week, and I wasn’t going to write about it at first but so many people were discussing it that it would have been wrong not to.
And I wanted to, I suppose.
I wanted to articulate the argument against doing it simply as a response to an Israeli team coming to Celtic Park, because although I get it as a concept and I understand why it was being done I felt uneasy about it.
Palestine is a cause close to my heart and it has been since I first got involved in politics 20 some years ago, so of course I didn’t object to the idea in principle. I just balked at us offending our guests, and pondered whether or not we’d have taken the same attitude towards a team from Russia or the Ukraine, if that’s your political preference.
I am not a zealot.
See, I believe that when the solution to the Palestine problem comes part of the reason for it will be, as it was in South Africa and in the American south, a reaction from the Israeli people. I know there are many Israeli’s dedicated to justice for the Palestinians, and the deep sense of shame they feel about their country enacting such vicious policies will be a big part of what eventually turns the tide. But I also know that it’s important to keep reminding the world of what’s really going on in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere, to keep that pressure on.
So, I never, not for one minute, disagreed with the basic principle at the centre of the flag demonstration and I’m a keen student of history and politics so I know that when the South Africans were the world’s pariah, the global impact of that was felt especially keenly by their sportsmen and women, many of whom were not oppressors or racists, but who bore the brunt of their government’s appalling social policies.
I admit freely that I have a little trouble with that, although I understand and support the concept.
On top of everything, I wondered if it would do any lasting good, and I worried it would have consequences for Celtic.
First up, there is no doubt whatsoever that it has done lasting good.
Furthermore, the consequences to Celtic will probably be negligible despite what the media is hoping for.
Most important, the reaction of the fans since, and the global publicity this has generated (I’ll come to that in a moment) accomplishes something I had not expected; it gives us a real chance, if the club is willing, to take this debate on … and win.
That’s what has turned me around completely on this issue.
I come from a political background. It’s not enough just to be right; there has to be a modicum of hope for a positive outcome too.
The reason I wondered if it would do any good was that in order to resonate this issue would have to be keenly felt in Israel itself. I knew the Palestinians would be aware of it, but I wondered just what impact it would have on Israeli citizens. That question was answered for me on the day of the match, when nearly every single Israeli newspaper had an article on the planned protest, doubtless tipped off by the various media outlets in the pro-Israel lobby who had decided to cover it.
That, to me, was a crucial mistake, one I hadn’t expected them to make.
What’s more, every single report pointed out that the fans would be risking a club fine … that really nailed it.
Celtic fans were putting the cause before their own club.
That could only be read, outside of Scotland, as a huge affair.
The wise thing, from the point of view of the Israeli media, would have been to ignore this, to limit the international dimension, to let it pass without comment. I couldn’t believe they highlighted it in the way they did. It focussed attention not just on our club but on the issue itself.
And this is where UEFA was always going to have a big, big problem if this issue got the coverage many were hoping for, but which I didn’t expect.
As I said in the piece, UEFA’s stance on this is ridiculous at best and wildly hypocritical at worst. There’s simply no defending it on their part; the notion that people in the stands shouldn’t be able to wave a national flag – and whether they like it or not, the Palestinian State is one.
Since statehood was formally declared in 1988, more than 70 countries have formally recognised Palestine’s existence.
It has treaties and bilateral agreements with the European Union and other major politics and trading blocks. In 2012, the UN gave it “observer status”, at its general assembly, which was seen as “de facto recognition of the Palestinian state.”
Furthermore, and here’s where UEFA gets into really dicey, and ultimately untenable, territory, a raft of national legislatures has debated the issue since and come up with some interesting conundrums for football’s governing body, which Celtic can certainly argue in their submission.
In October 2014, Sweden became the first European parliament state outside the Eastern Block to formally recognise the State of Palestine.
Theirs is also the first European country to open an official Palestinian embassy.
The French followed suit a month later.
These would be inconvenient facts in and of themselves, but in between Sweden and France there was another national legislature which voted overwhelmingly for Palestinian state recognition.
It was the Westminster one. Ours.
By a vote of 217 – 12.
Yet UEFA has charged us for this.
A club hailing from a country whose parliament formally recognises that flag as that of an international state.
Quite how they’re going to square the circle, should Celtic argue the case forcefully, I do not know. If our club decides to push this – and they should, they should, and they must push it all the way, appealing any fine, perhaps even flat-out refusing to pay one – I don’t know how UEFA will maintain its position.
Their argument, that this is “a political gesture” doesn’t hold water because the very act of trying to ban this flag from football grounds is itself an overtly political act and that, when taken with their decision to allow Israel to compete in European football in the first place, makes their disciplinary case absolutely untenable.
All of this, I’d have argued last week but what tips the balance even more resolutely in favour of the club and the position of the fans is the quite momentous decision, by The Green Brigade, to match any levied fine, penny for penny, and give it the people of Palestine.
I was simply blown away when I heard they were doing that.
I know the Green Brigade have a long history on this. They are not hypocrites or what I described elsewhere as “Saturday morning socialists.” Their political views and mine are almost identical and although I’ve argued at times about the manner in which they’ve chosen to make points – I thought the F@@@ UEFA banner did us no good at all – I’ve generally been supportive of what they’ve chosen to do.
In this case, they’ve amazed me.
One of the things I suggested in the piece was that the best way to help the Palestinians was to give some money to charity; I am stunned by the sheer simplistic brilliance of marrying that to the concept of a UEFA fine. As a great admirer of those who practice the art of politics well, this one makes me smile from ear to ear because it is a masterful action that will generate another round of news stories, as it’s already doing, but even more if UEFA follows through on its despicable threat.
Because aside from being a magnificent humanitarian gesture, this exposes the totality of the moral vacuum at the heart of UEFA’s so-called case. The very fact that some of this money will be spent on setting up a football team is just magnificent. This doesn’t simply destroy UEFA’s case, it smashes it with a hammer and it exposes it for what it really is. UEFA’s disciplinary committee should be shamed by what our fans have done here, they really should be.
The higher their fine is, the greater will be the contrast between their own shabby “values” and those of our fans.
If our club pays a penny of it, without the most robust appeal, giving legitimacy to this disgrace, I’ll be appalled.
It should be fought with every weapon in the arsenal.
If I had a choice, I’d rather we simply refused to pay.
What are they going to do? Ban us? I’d love to see them try to. Imagine the waves that would make? Imagine the shame that would heap on their already disgraced organisation? You want this debate to take on new life, and have football associations all over Europe arguing the case with us?
They couldn’t be so stupid.
It is the ethical duty of our club, now that this matter is live, to fight this every step of the way.
There are values beyond the petty and the inconsequential.
There are things other than money at stake.
The fans have shown that this is a moral issue; what choice does our club have but to treat it as one? I may not have much faith in the people in our boardroom at times, but this is such an obvious place to draw a line and fight on the side of the good guys that it would be beyond belief if our club did anything else.
To fine any club’s fans for this is an outrage.
It might not be a fight our club – or indeed many of our supporters, me included – actually wanted … but it’s here and we have a duty to be on the right side of it. This is a mess of UEFA’s own making; their hypocrisy is clear to every right thinking person. This is a rule that belongs in the bin with our very own Offensive Behaviour Act, and even those who’ve pushed that onto us were never going to apply it in this particular case.
All talk of people being arrested for the act of flying a national flag … Police Scotland wanted nothing to do with it.
In a single day, the Match The Fine campaign has overshot its initial target.
Our fans know what true values and principles are. The second target of £40,000 is now well within reach, and I’ve put a link to the campaign at the bottom of the page for anyone who wants to make a donation … and I’d urge as many of you as possible to do it.
Congratulations to everyone involved in this.
You’ve done yourselves and Celtic proud.
In Brendan We Trust.
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