Thousands were touched by the Celtic fans’ show of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Large sections of the stadium turned into a sea of green, red, black and white as fans raised the Palestinian flag despite repeated warnings from European football’s governing body (UEFA). The fans earned further respect and acclaim around the world by raising more money than the fine imposed on the club through the campaign #MatchTheFineForPalestine.
For some, this impressive display of defiance was as moving as it was bewildering; why do Celtic fans repeatedly defy football’s governing body to show solidarity with the Palestinian people? It’s a question I’ve been asked a few times over the past few days.
Even before looking at some of the shared history and experiences behind this protest, it’s worth noting that there is a long history of ties between football and politics. The most well-known is the rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid, which began after the 1939 Spanish civil war: during the coup the dictator General Francisco Franco successfully captured the capital Madrid. Barcelona, as the capital of Catalonia, became a centre of protest against the capital and Franco’s policies.
As football began to attract larger crowds, stadiums became outlets for political defiance and protest. Barcelona attained the title of Mes que un club – more than a club – which to this day attests to their commitment to matters just beyond the football pitch and onto social and political affairs.
Though football culture is often ridiculed as the new religion and stadiums as substitutes to places of worship, the metaphor unveils a truth about the game which cannot be said of other sports. It’s not wild speculation to suggest that a number of football teams have their origins in some form of political protest. Football’s enduring appeal is still that of a working class sport with supporters that want to maintain independence and are uneasy with elitism.
Current manifestations of this tension can be seen between football clubs, on the main, reinforcing establishment politics tied to neo-liberal corporate culture on the one end, and grass root fans up and down the country challenging the elitist takeover of the game on the other. There is no question that Palestine will become a decisive as well as a divisive issue in challenging the establishment by football fans around the world. With the growth of BDS, which is a grass root movement progressing at a tremendous pace because of the abdication of moral and on occasion legal responsibility by established institutions, football stadiums will increasingly become staging grounds for political protest in the coming years.
The protest in Celtic Park was a sign of things to come. Organisers of the protest have offered their own reasons for their actions: “[We] took a stand last night because we had to. This was an Israeli team, one whose town is built on occupied Palestinian land.” The supporters’ only surprise is why more football fans have not yet joined them in their campaign, especially seeing as one of the main reasons for their protest is also because of their love of the game; they wanted to take a stance against Israel tainting the beautiful game by restricting Palestinian footballers from travel, leaving them no option but to go on hunger strikes in response to Israel’s brutal policies. As the supporters of the Celtic protest themselves noted: “They [Israeli players] were allowed to travel here freely for the game. Israeli football clubs can go anywhere they want, from Israel to any country in the world. That freedom of movement is not shared with Palestinian teams and players, who have restrictions imposed on them. There have been numerous incidents in recent years where that has happened”.
Celtic fans are more acutely aware of the injustice in Palestine and are able to empathise to a greater degree with a subjugated people because of their shared history. With a support base predominantly from the Catholic community, Celtic fans are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause as they see parallels between the history of Ireland and Palestine. Many are descendants of Irish farmers who migrated from Ireland to escape the great famine, which many Irish people blamed on the British.
The club itself was formed in 1887 by a Catholic Cleric in order to generate revenue to feed the Irish residents of Glasgow. Eventually, as noted by season ticket holder at Celtic Park Marc Patrick Conaghan: “It became a beacon of hope and source of pride to the dispossessed people.”
Conaghan added: “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.”
The Irish connection is a big factor in the Celtic Park protest. In the eyes of many Irish, Israel is “a little loyal Jewish Ulster” which is a reference to the Northern provinces of Ireland under British control that were seen as a bulwark against Irish nationalism just as Israel is a bulwark against Palestinian nationalism. Israeli propagandists may fight to keep these facts hidden in their quest to promote the Israeli brand, however it’s becoming clear to an increasing number of people that British plans for the region were dominated by a new version of settler colonialism that didn’t involve its own population.
Reasons for British support of Zionism are many but the unease amongst Britain’s colonial administrators about the Suez Canal and the future of Palestine were clearly some of the most powerful. Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, perfectly captured this when he described Egypt as the “jugular vein of the British Empire” and that the Jewish colonisation of Palestine would bring forth “for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.” Another British official described Palestine as the “Clapham Junction” of the British Empire. With so much at stake, finding a friendly population to settle in Palestine was imperative to Britain’s colonial design for the region. Some have even suggested that if Zionism didn’t exist Britain would have had to invent it.
The people of Ireland understood this more than most. In addition, their Catholic faith heightened their concern for the fate of Jerusalem. Subsequent Irish governments recognised these factors and adopted a highly critical stance towards Israel. Unlike other European countries, Ireland only recognised Israel as late as 1963 and to this day it recognises that a settlement of the conflict can only come about through restorative justice; undoing historical injustices through the repatriation of the maximum possible number of Palestinian refugees and full compensation, not as Israel and others have maintained, merely a resettlement of refugees.
The bond between Palestine and Ireland runs deeper than just historical parallels. Palestinians in Gaza were showing solidarity with Irish prisoners who went on hunger strike in 1981 in protest against British policy. Gerry McLochlainn who was one of those incarcerated spoke of the inspiration he felt having seen people he never met from faraway places he’s never visited campaigning for his freedom. He vowed upon his release “to work for Palestinian prisoners.” No doubt the ongoing hunger strike by Palestinians is partly inspired by the defiance of Irish prisoners against their oppressors.
Last week’s protest in Celtic Park was an expression of solidarity that runs deep and stretches back years. It’s inspired by a shared sense of historical injustice and common humanity. With Israel continuing a policy of settler colonisation of historic Palestine, these protests are surely a sign of things to come.