The following is an abridged summary of a qualitative study undertaken as part of the Masters in Community Education, Equality and Social Activism at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. The thesis drew upon theories of culture, subculture, social movements, radical pedagogy, ethnographies and studies of ultras, gender and football research, as well as studies of the Irish immigrant experience in Scotland, and specifically the role of Celtic FC as an expression of Irish identity.
The Green Brigade of Glasgow Celtic Football Club were founded in 2006 as an explicitly anti-sectarian, anti-racist and anti-fascist group of ultras, who would celebrate Irish Republicanism, oppose the commercialisation of football, and act as an alternative to apolitical fans groups who were perceived as being too close to the management of the club.
Football has long provided a space for dissident politics to be expressed, and the link between football and radical politics is well established (Kuhn, 2011). In Scotland, football is an important forum where issues of ethnic, religious and political identity are played out, with Celtic being an important conduit for expressions of Irish immigrant identities, particularly support for Irish Republicanism, anti-imperialist struggles, and broadly left-wing politics.
As ultras, the Green Brigade support their team in a passionate, colourful, loud and coordinated way, making use of banners, pyrotechnics, songs and chants, and other expressions of die-hard support. The term 'ultra', for many, has become synonymous with right-wing football groups, particularly in Italy, where fascist ultras groups are extremely prevalent. While it is true that right-wing, fascist ultra groups are extremely prominent throughout Europe, ultra is a subcultural scene which has been adopted by both right and left-wing football fans and activists. Comparable examples of subcultures being spaces of direct contestation between fascist and anti-fascist activists would be the skinhead and punk scenes, where the venues and identities of the scenes are often literal battlegrounds between ideologically opposed sides who recognise the political importance of predominantly youth subcultures (Vysotsky, 2013).
In recent insurrections in Egypt and Turkey, ultras groups have played extremely prominent roles, experienced as they are in resisting the police, bringing large, organised groups of people onto the streets, and drawing upon a culture of open hostility and opposition to the state. In Turkey, ultras from Istanbul clubs Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, usually bitter rivals, united in clashes against police, bringing to the barricades their invaluable experience of street fighting with the police, and a willingness to engage in direct and violent clashes with the state (Istanbul Uprising, 2014). While such insurrectionary moments are rare in Scotland, it is valuable to explore how the Green Brigade maintain, and recreate, a sense of 'rebel' politics within the particular community of Celtic Football Club and the immigrant Irish in Scotland.
Though there are members from other parts of Scotland and Ireland, and several women members, the majority of members are young men from the west of Scotland, in particular Glasgow. Members are predominantly of Irish descent, but there are also members from Arab, African and Muslim backgrounds. Aside from the 'core' of around 70 members, the group draws several hundred to section 111, their home in Celtic Park. Alongside face to face meetings, either on match days or other events, much of the discussion and decision making occurs on the group's online forum, greenbrigade.proboards.com. Alongside practical organising, the forum provides a space for the discussion of football, politics, books and culture. While decisions are generally taken by consensus, votes are sometimes taken. Although there is no formal hierarchy within the group, like other ultras groups there is a core of people who are more influential, usually due to being founding members, particularly active, or more politically involved than others.
The most visible aspects of the Green Brigade's activities occur within or immediately around the football match. The group have become famous for their spectacular, highly coordinated tifos, displays of banners, ticker tape, flares etc. The most contentious of these have been displays which have addressed anti-Irish racism in Scotland, British imperialism, solidarity with Palestine, and Scottish Government legislation which has criminalised expressions of a politicised Irish immigrant
Outside of the football stadia, the group organise around a number of issues within their communities, most noticeably in the historically Irish, and impoverished, east end of Glasgow. The highlight of the Green Brigade's calendar is a free anti-discrimination football tournament, which has featured teams from the Basque, Nigerian, Cameroonian, Pakistani, Irish, refugee and asylum seeker, and LGBTQ communities, as well as teams from Celtic Supporters Clubs (CSCs), and even the odd Rangers supporters side. As one member explains, the task of challenging discrimination is not taken lightly, though there has been an overwhelmingly positive response from participants, in a city where ethnic and religious groups do not often mix socially.
[...] this is our sixth year now doing the tournament, if you’re only hitting one person a year, it's still changing someone in Glasgow, and the East End of Glasgow isn't somewhere you're going to change a lot of people's opinions.
Aside from football, the group regularly organises food drives for food banks in Glasgow as a response to the effects of austerity, collecting essential food items at games and social events and fundraisers. The most recent food drive, conducted with other Celtic supporters groups, raised close to £9,000 and over 7.5 tons of food, which is claimed as the largest single collection of food for a food bank in the UK.
The political culture of the Green Brigade
The political culture of the Green Brigade is too complicated to sum up succinctly, though I will attempt to give a taste of how political activism and discussion are approached. There is no set ideological or political manifesto of the group, but instead a broad umbrella of principles, namely support for Celtic, a love of the ultra way of life, and a general 'soundness' of left-wing, progressive politics. Irish Republican politics have been a formative part of the politicisation of most members, with the influence of Republican politics being seen as an important foundation for the discussion of other political struggles and ideas, amongst group members but also in terms of outreach. Members spoke of varying influences in their own processes of politicisation, in particular the invasion and occupation of Iraq, experiences of loyalist violence, immigrant family histories, the South African anti-apartheid movement, the Palestinian struggle, and exposure to anarchism, amongst other movements.
In terms of shades of green, red and black, individual members' politics can vary greatly, from supporters of Sinn Féin, éirígí, republican socialists, members of the Scottish Socialist Party, communists, trade unionists, anarchists, to members who prioritise support for Celtic above politics. Debate is lively, on and offline, with the forum providing a glimpse of the breadth and tone of discussion. Individual activities and initiatives, such as support for a particular campaign, are often 'pushed' by individual members based on their own personal interests and politics. The groups increasingly active support and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is a clear example of the evolution not only of members' politics, but of the collective focus and politics of the group. It is now unthinkable that Celtic could ever play an Israeli team in Glasgow without significant pro-Palestinian and pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) action from the Green Brigade and other Celtic fans. Support for the Palestinian struggle has even extended to a blog being written by a group member while they were volunteering in Palestine.
There are international links and friendships with other anti-fascist ultras groups throughout Europe, such as Toulon, Marseilles, Standard Liege, Athletic Bilbao, Livorno, and the red and black Bohemians (Bohs) of Dublin's Northside. A central feature of the Green Brigade, like other ultras groups, is the importance of friendship, with members considering the group as a family which provides emotional support and care.
Many members have spoken of the way in which involvement with the Green Brigade deepened and expanded their political education, taking an often superficial awareness of 'rebel' politics, and in particular Irish Republicanism, and drawing links and comparisons with anti-fascism, anti-homophobia and anti-sexism, and struggles in the Basque Country, Chiapas and Palestine to name but a few. The scope of themes discussed, in person and online, is impressive, as the online forum indicates. The Politics page of the forum alone contains more than 200 pages, over 8,000 separate threads. Examples of themes covered are racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-fascism, Palestine, Irish Republicanism, asylum seeker and refugee solidarity; music; films; Policing; Austerity; and literally thousands of others. There is also a 12 page thread with reading suggestions covering similar topics, as well as fiction. It is considered a 'working document', and there is a lengthy discussion and suggestions of books which members and forum users have found influential.
Perhaps the most formalised way that learning functions within the group is through political education nights, covering a wide range of topics including anti-fascism, women in the Irish struggle, miscarriages of justice, legal rights, Irish Republican prisoners, refugee and asylum seeker rights, and Palestine. Members who organised political education nights spoke of the importance of making politics accessible, of not having people 'dwarfed by big words', and of creating 'a laid back environment to discuss politics'.
Repression and resistance
In 2012 the Scottish Government introduced the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication Act, ostensibly to tackle 'sectarianism' in Scotland in the wake of of the attempted posting of a bomb and bullets, to then Celtic manager Neil Lennon, a Catholic from Lurgan in County Armagh, as well as several physical attacks and death threats. However, rather than addressing the pervasiveness of anti-Irish racism in Scotland, the legislation has primarily targeted politicised expressions of Irish identity in Scotland, and in particular any banners, songs, chants or other expressions of opposition to British imperialism in Ireland. The Green Brigade have borne the brunt of the legislation, with regular harassment and repression which would be considered scandalous by polite society, were it not meted out to working class football fans, and proudly anti-establishment ones at that.
Examples of police attempts to disrupt the group's activities have included: constant and overt surveillance of the group at, and travelling to and from football matches; stop and searches; dawn raids on members' homes for controversial banners; police blocking of taxi applications; attempts by Special Branch to recruit informers; covert surveillance of members, in Scotland and abroad, down to detailing specific meals eaten; use of Anti-Terrorism legislation to detain and question members travelling between Scotland and the north of Ireland; dozens of arrests; imprisonment on remand; the completely ironic deployment of police horses, riot vans and baton charges on members protesting police harassment; and a dedicated unit tasked with monitoring the group.
Such repression has taken its toll on the Green Brigade, with members citing it as the single biggest difficulty faced by the group. As well as the psychological, financial and social cost of arrests, intimidation and harassment, the state's tactics have also forced the group into a more defensive role. Activities both inside the stadium and outside in the community have to varying degrees suffered or been forced to adapt to counter the effects of police repression. Banners that otherwise would celebrate Celtic and radical struggles have often focussed on highlighting repressive government legislation and police actions; education nights which could discuss radical history have had to adapt by discussing the legal rights of young fans who are stopped and searched by police, whether on match days or not.
This is not the vanguard you’re looking for
While there is much to celebrate in the vibrancy of the Green Brigade, and the very real successes they have had in creating and developing spaces to celebrate and act out progressive, radical politics, all members I spoke with were insistent on the need to view the group in a down to earth and unglamorous way, to the point of at times downplaying the more political nature of the group. Without Celtic, the Green Brigade would have no reason to exist, so support of Celtic is the focus of the group. However, Celtic has provided a space for left-wing and Irish Republican politics from the moment the Fenian Michael Davitt laid the first sod of turf (imported from Donegal) at Celtic Park in 1892, and so it is not a surprise that an ultra group within Celtic has an explicitly left-wing identity.
“I think it's always important to understand the context of where the group's coming ... what the group is, you know. It's not a political revolutionary front, you know what I mean. We're not the vanguard of the working class. I've had good, activist pals of mine who did talk about how 'the Green Brigade are going to be the vanguard of the revolution', be at the forefront of the storming of the Scottish Parliament, and yer like that, 'mate, shut the fuck up.” (Participant 1: 28)
Such reference to 'the vanguard of the working class' is a thinly veiled dig at elements of the Scottish left. There is a perception among many in the Green Brigade of sections of the Scottish left as patronising, middle class, out of touch with the realities of the lives of many members, and also deeply uncomfortable with notions of Irishness which celebrate armed struggle against Britain. Members of the group have at times been mistaken for fascists by 'black bloc' anti-fascists, with the suggestion once being made that they should swap their Adidas trainers for Converse, and that they should not dress in smart casual clothing. Relations with non-member activists is often done on the basis of friendships and informal relations, and most large organisations are viewed with suspicion at best. Alongside this wariness of the 'middle class' left,
There are obvious contradictions and tensions within the group, but much of this is the nature of a group which has no formal policies, which has a broad membership, and which is located within the overwhelmingly masculine environment of Scottish football. The most obvious tension is the fact that, although explicitly committed to challenging all forms of discrimination, the group is still overwhelmingly male, and attempts to more proactively challenge sexism and hegemonic masculinity did not seem central to the members I spoke with. Although members were conscious of the need address issues of gender, some spoke of a fear of appearing 'tokenistic', of issues of gender and anti-sexism being put on the back burner due to police repression and its challenges, and also the difficulty of challenging ingrained patriarchal attitudes within the wider Celtic support.
In deindustrialised societies football stadia are one of the few places where large groups of people regularly gather and socialise, and many football clubs are far more than just sporting organisations. Celtic in particular provides a way for the Irish immigrant community in Scotland to express a contested, marginalised and often silenced sense of identity which celebrates struggles against colonialism and imperialism and the fight for a better world. Overwhelmingly working class, young and male, and most contentiously in a Scotland where anti-Irish racism is deeply ingrained, the Green Brigade are clearly viewed by the establishment as a threat to the status quo and a challenge to a notion of Scotland as being a progressive country. To paraphrase a friend, there is a big green elephant in the room, and it is doing shit on the tartan carpet.
This has been far too brief a glimpse into the Green Brigade, their activities, politics and the context they are situated in, but I hope it has gone someway to demystifying an often demonised group, and has highlighted the importance that football can have as a space for the expression of contentious identities. The success of the Green Brigade is in large part due to their position within an already politicised parent culture of Celtic and left-wing elements of the Irish community in Scotland, and it is not for the left to try to 'colonise' or co-opt such spaces in an attempt to grow organisations.
The experiences of left-wing ultras groups, whether in Cairo, Istanbul, Livorno or Glasgow, offer important lessons on the importance of sport, and in particular football, to the maintenance and development of wider cultures of resistance, which not only resist neoliberalism within football stadia, but seek to challenge other forms of oppression in communities.
WORDS: Eoin O’Ceallaigh
Eoin is an activist, writer and support worker currently based in Scotland, though has lived and worked in Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Mexico and Ireland.