Groundhog day at Celtic Park.

I was discussing this story with the news editor of the Irish Post this week. As ever when journalist and editor discuss a piece the question from the editor is always “what is the peg?”

I didn’t have to think too much about that one.

I immediately said: “Groundhog day at Celtic Park!”

That was my initial feeling.

It felt like the first few days of September last year when I had reported on the singing, by Rangers fans, of the now infamous “Famine song” at Celtic Park.

Most of you will know that following on from that soccer match in Glasgow.

The “Famine Song” controversy became a matter of inter-governmental communication between the Republic of Ireland and the devolved assembly in Edinburgh.

I thought we had all heard the last of the “Famine Song.”

I was wrong.

Rangers were back at the home of their rivals this month for the first time since August 31st 2008.

This time, just like in August, the  “Famine Song”, the racist anthem that has replaced the Billy Boys as the main signature tune of the Rangers support, was heard by almost everyone in the stadium and by anyone watching the match on television.

The “Famine Song” was heard loud and clear several times throughout the match by almost everyone.

What was not lost on many in the Irish community in Scotland and here in Ireland was the way the story was covered in Scotland.

Ewan Murray writing in the Guardian and Graham Speirs in the Times mentioned the singing of the Famine sing in their match reports.

Match reports in the Scottish papers didn’t have a mention of this behaviour by the Rangers fans at Celtic Park that day.

This is very similar to what happened in the reportage of the last Old Firm match at Celtic Park last august.

There was, however, one important difference from August 31st.

The SPL match delegate Alan Dick made reference to the singing of the “Famine Song”.

In August the SPL match delegate had been ex-Scotland manager Craig Brown. In that match report the “Famine Song” wasn’t mentioned.

Brown himself had been embarrassed some years back when a tabloid newspaper had received a tape recording of a voice message he had left on his girlfriends answering machine. After a Rangers victory over Celtic he had sang the  “Billy Boys”.

Brown stated, in his defence, that he had done this “ as a joke.”

This song is now banned by UEFA.

Many think that, as nature abhors a vacuum, the banning of the “Billy Boys” by UEFA, then by the SPL created the need for a new anthem that articulated the Rangers belief system.

Following on from this recent performance of the “Famine Song” there was a swift reaction from representatives of Glasgow’s Irish community.

The Garngad Irish Heritage Group spokesperson said:

“The sad fact about this on going racist abuse is not the half educated racist morons who sing it, it is the deafening silence from the Scottish establishment, from the SNP Govt. right through to the media whose silence on this serious issue makes them just as guilty as the perpetrators.
 One Scotland, Many Cultures is a popular slogan from this SNP Govt.  It should have in brackets [unless you are of Irish descent].
Scotland’s Shame is not sectarianism, Scotland’s shame is Anti Irish Racism!”

Kieron Brady, Ex-Sunderland and Republic of Ireland international who has worked extensively in the anti-racism field said:

I asked Kieron what action should the SPL take about the singing of TFS by Rangers fans at CP during the recent match at CP?

“When you look at the history of the ‘Famine Song’ and the persistence in airing it and its alternative adaptations for James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady then there have to be some action which gives Rangers an incentive to ensure this anti-Irish racism is removed completely from the song sheet. My own view is that the threat of police action is in many ways futile Vis a Vis to acting as a worthwhile and indefinite deterrent. I think what would be welcome from Rangers FC would be a statement that all who hold anti-Irish attitudes are not welcome at Ibrox Park. Such statements have been issued by various other clubs in light of racist incidents. I would refrain from second guessing any potential SPL sanctions.”

I then asked Kieron about the  “self-policing” that had been announced by Rangers supporters organisation.

“I think such initiatives per se are positive but only if strenuous efforts are made to marginalize and mute those who are motivated by self-interest and intolerance. It would be encouraging if a collective of supporters felt empowered enough to introduce measures, which could rid the support of the racist element. In a similar vein to any club statement, it would be encouraging if such a collective made a statement saying that those with anti-Irish attitudes were no longer welcome within the ranks of the support.”

I put it to Kieron the view that the “Famine Song” was merely a bit of ironic banter?

“The concept of inviting or telling immigrant groups to ‘Go home’ is a mainstay of global racist mantra. Ergo it is erroneous to label it as ‘banter’. The Irish community in Scotland just like the Indian and Pakistani communities for example, have the right to celebrate their culture and heritage and likewise have the right not to be discriminated against. These are fundamental and key cornerstones of equality.”

The fact that the singing of the “Famine Song” had been included in the match delegate’s report made sure that the story did break into the Scottish sports pages on Tuesday after the match on Sunday.

It was also discussed on Radio Scotland.

In this radio broadcast anchored by the BBC’s Richard Gordon the Daily Record journalist Keith Jackson made a defence of those singing the “Famine Song” and, effectively, blamed the Celtic supporters for the fact hat the song was sung that day at Celtic Park. At the start of the match some Celtic supporters had unfurled a banner with the statement at Celtic FC had been “born out of famine and oppression.”

The Daily Record journalist stated:

“I can’t pretend to be outraged or mock some kind of horror at that famine song…the lines that are sung at a football match. To me it has just got silly. People want to point score and to get people into trouble.”

Keith Jackson stated some bemusement at the presence of police officers pointing video cameras.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that singing the “Famine song” is, in Scotland, illegal.

Keith Jackson maybe unaware of the court case in November at Kilmarnock Sheriff court, where a Rangers supporter was convicted for, yes you guessed it, singing the “Famine Song”.

When I covered MEP Eoin Ryan’s visit to Scotland the week of the Kilmarnock case I met with a senior police officer in charge of Operational Planning for Ibrox and Hampden.  This was a serious no nonsense cop and he was very clear that singing the “Famine Song” in a soccer stadium was illegal.

He even told me the law, the section and the subsection.

Several months on a senior journalist like Keith Jackson is still treating the “Famine Song” issue as political correctness went too far.

I went back to Kieron Brady for his analysis of Keith Jackson’s thought on the “Famine song”

After listening to the BBC podcast the ex-Republic of Ireland international and anti-racism campaigner was trenchant in his criticism of the Daily Record journalist.

“Keith Jackson’s assertion that the banner unveiled by a section of Celtic fans is in some way inviting the Famine Song is fundamentally flawed bordering on the most warped logic. A basic right relating to equality is the right to overtly and openly illustrate a pride in identity allied with the right not to be discriminated against for the same reason. If this logic was applied across the board we would have racism and sectarianism as well as other forms of intolerance not only commonplace in sporting stadia but throughout society. If Tottenham fans of Jewish extraction or of the Jewish faith were to illustrate a pride in their identity would this give carte blanche for supporters of other clubs to engage in anti-Semitism. I very much doubt that the media, Tottenham Hotspur FC or the English FA would tolerate such behaviours.
Additionally his assertion that Scotland has ‘cleaned up its act’ is fantasy. I spoke with a former colleague at Show Racism the Red Card Scotland and am also aware of the thoughts at Kick it Out, with all in unison that the Famine Song and how it has been sustained for almost a year is the worst racism in British football stadia for many many years. When you look at the persistent anti-Irish abuse meted out towards Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy then there is a recognition that Scotland has a unique problem vis a vis anti-Irish racism and what is arguably more shameful is that in relation to the racist abuse of both players, much of it has been engendered by anti-Irish racists in the Scottish media.
Throughout mainland Europe, anti-racist bodies look at England as a positive model regarding eradicating racism from footballing environs. Of course this does not mean that offensive and insensitive expressions have been absented completely. We only have to look at the despicable abuse of Sol Campbell several months ago to witness that on occasions reprehensible expressions can rear their ugly head. Likewise in mainland Europe, particularly in the East of the continent there is much work to be done to ensure that vocal and visual expression is kept within the parameters of football, or at the very least is not based around prejudice.
I would agree with his assertion that there has to be more of an evenhanded approach. That would mean that the Irish community are entitled equality in relation to the right not to be discriminated against. Admittedly this concept may seem foreign to certain elements in Scotland, including some in the Fourth Estate but anti-racism only has credibility when it operates from a platform of Equality and ensures there is no hierarchy, whether that is based around the victimised group or indeed the perpetrator. What this means effectively is that that the Irish community, the Jewish community or the African or Caribbean communities being asked to go home is equally abhorrent and equally racist. Referring to a tragedy such as An Gorta Mor only makes it all the more reprehensible, in the same way as alluding to the Holocaust or Slavery may in particular be offensive to the aforementioned communities. On that note measures have to be introduced to address all forms of anti-Irish racism in the same way it would address other forms of racism, or indeed other forms of intolerance.
On his last point about potential sanctions I would be inclined to agree in that the chances of a points deduction are negligible. This is not only an unwanted sanction in Scotland for clubs but throughout Europe national associations have reservations about such sanctions being imposed.”

Rangers supporters organisations themselves, in as much as they made statements on this re-appearance of the “Famine song” were dismissive of the criticism that the song was a manifestation of anti-Irish racism.

The Rangers Supporters Trust concentrated their response on the author of the match delegates report. They questioned the impartiality    ipso facto, integrity, of Alan Dick.

Rangers Media, another fans group, decided to dismiss the entire episode by looking back into the history of the two Glasgow clubs. 

“The Famine Song-surely something to celebrate?”

Looked at the events at a Celtic Rangers match in April 1909 recounted a Scottish cup replay at Hampden that ended in a riot with 50 police officers injured.

“Now that happened exactly 100 years ago this spring. I think it is fair to say we’ve moved on a fair bit from then. So why is the media reaction to what is reported to have been sung on Sunday so strangely out of kilter with reality. I’ve yet to see the statistics for arrests on Sunday but I’d be astonished if more than 20 were made during the entire match, inside and outside the ground. There certainly wasn’t a riot, despite the poor performance from both teams, I’d hate to see the reaction if there ever was. Some people might have sung a song that doesn’t slander anyone.
Isn’t it great that this is all we’re talking about, look how far we’ve come.”

Rangers supporters of 1909 and 2009 are, of course, products of a radically different society. What they do share is a hatred of the Irish and any expression of Irishness.

This dismissal of the racist “Famine Song” as “no big deal” is identical in content and tone of Keith Jackson’s opinions on the BBC podcast.

When Eoin Ryan MEP visited Scotland in November, as a guest of the Scottish government, the object of that trip was to show the Irish politician the excellent work being done at grassroots level in tackling racism in Scottish football.

I was the only print journalist present that day to cover the event at the Glasgow City chambers.

One of the organisations invited to meet Ryan that day was “Show Racism the Red Card”(SRTRC). Readers of this site will know that SRTRC were petitioned by Irish community organisations in May last year after the “Famine Song” was sung at Celtic Park in April during an SPL match.

Despite conceding in these meetings that the “Famine Song” was racist it took SRTRC until October to state on their website that the “Famine Song” was, in the opinion of SRTRC, “racist”.

This week I tried in vain to any response from the Scottish office of SRTRC.

I finally called the English office of SRTRC and they gave me the mobile phone of one of their Scottish workers Tommy Breslin.

Tommy has surprised to take a call from a journalist. It isn’t his role, but no one else was, so to speak, at home. I explained why I was calling. It was, essentially the same conversation I had had with Tommy in October-remember this is Groundhog Day.

I have never met Tommy, but he seems a very decent sort of man.

He agreed to pass my request for a statement from onto SRTRC Scottish co-ordinator Billy Singh.

Before calling Tommy I had tried to get Billy on his mobile over several days, but his phone seemed to be off.

I had a deadline to make for the Irish Post so in the end I had to go to another organisation that works against racism in soccer for a statement to make the story stronger.

As in October I called the organisation “Kick It Out!”

Groundhog Day. Kick it out don’t seem to suffer from any shyness problems when it comes to dealing with the anti-Irish racism of some Rangers fans.

Danny Lynch a spokesperson for “Kick it out” made this statement to me:

“Recent efforts to eliminate offensive singing and chanting from ‘Old Firm’
games need to be reinforced if the situation does not improve quickly. The
singing by Rangers fans of songs such as ‘The Famine Song’, which invites
second generation Irish people to go back home, are clearly racist.
If the club cannot persuade fans to refrain from singing such offensive
songs, then the SPL will need to take action.”

Why couldn’t SRTRC make such a statement?

When Jason Scotland was racially abused in 2007 by Motherwell fans the response of SRTRC and, indeed, sports journalists in Scotland was swift and appropriate.

Since then Noel Hunt (Dundee United), Aidan McGeady (Celtic) and James McCarthy (Hamilton Academical) have been on the receiving end of anti-Irish racist abuse from opposition fans.

Sadly the organisation that is meant to work against racism in Scottish football seems somewhat compromised when the victim of the racist abuse holds an Irish passport.

The SPL board will consider Alan Dick’s match report at their next meeting in March.

Rangers, who have already received a warning from the SPL for similar behaviour from their fans, could face a fine or a points deduction.

A points deduction by the SPL is unlikely. However, this season action has been taken against clubs in Europe for the behaviour of their fans. Paris St Germain were banned from this season’s French League Cup after unveiling an offensive banner, but were later reinstated on appeal in a civic court.

However, there may still have been some form of sanction i.e fine or a warning.
Botev Plovdiv were deducted points in the Bulgarian top flight this season, again for a banner that was deemed racist.  They also had to play a subsequent game behind closed doors. It is worth noting that this club, like Rangers, has had a recent history of hooligan problems.  Last season Botev Plovdiv were forced to play more than one game behind closed doors because of hooliganism.

This will be a real test for the SPL.

It is time for Lex Gold and his organisation to walk the walk.

If Rangers fans think they can act with impunity then they certainly will.

Just ask the good people of Manchester.