There was a corner of Celtic Park that was a little quieter than usual on Wednesday evening. The occasion was a Scottish Premiership game between St Mirren and their hosts, Celtic, one of the most successful club teams in world football, with more than 100 trophies to their name and a fanbase that spans the globe.
Normally, the section between the North Stand and Lisbon Lions Stand — the latter a nod to the club’s most famous side, which won the 1967 European Cup in Portugal — would have been filled by the Green Brigade, a fans’ collective formed in 2006.
But on Tuesday the Scottish club announced that the season tickets of anyone who belonged to that group — around 250 people — had been suspended for the foreseeable future. This was, the club said, because of an “increasingly serious escalation in unacceptable behaviours and non-compliance with applicable regulations.”
The immediate assumption was that this action relates to the continued display of Palestinian flags and pro-Palestinian banners at Celtic Park. The Green Brigade have long made their support for the Palestinian cause clear, something that they have continued in recent weeks as the situation in Gaza has developed.
Particular attention has been paid to the game on October 7, when Celtic faced Kilmarnock at home, hours after the Hamas attacks in Israel. At that game, the Green Brigade displayed two large banners that read ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Victory to the Resistance’.
The club condemned this action, stating: “Celtic is a football club and not a political organisation.” Nir Bitton, an Israeli midfielder who played for the club between 2013 and 2022, criticised those fans for being “brainwashed” and for having “zero clue about this conflict and you still act like you know everything.”
Before the Champions League game against Atletico Madrid on October 25, the club released a statement asking that “banners, flags and symbols relating to the conflict and those countries involved in it are not displayed at Celtic Park at this time.”
The Green Brigade responded to that request with a statement of their own, which reiterated “our unshakeable belief that we, and other football supporters, have the right to express political views on the terraces, just as ordinary citizens do elsewhere in society.”
They asked “all Celtic fans to raise the Palestine flag on the European stage and show the world that Celtic Football Club stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor.”
And so they did, with a number of Palestinian flags and banners held up during the game. This included one flag of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a separate group from Hamas but one that is classified as a terrorist organisation in many countries, including the U.S., but not in the UK.
If the suspension of the season tickets was directly related to the flags and banners, it is likely that the PFLP flag may have tipped the balance.
But, once again, the club insist it was more because of six different incidents at games in the last few months. They are; use of pyrotechnics during the Champions League game against Feyenoord in September (which led to the club being fined by UEFA); ‘unsafe behaviour’ in a game against Motherwell in September; ‘illegally gaining access’ to Celtic Park for the Champions League game against Lazio and displaying an ‘unauthorised banner’; similar transgressions against Kilmarnock in October and against Atletico and finally ‘violent and intimidating behaviour towards stewards’ during the recent trip to Hibs.
The Celtic Trust, a broader Celtic supporters’ society, released a statement on Wednesday that said “it is abundantly clear to us that this action has been motivated by the flying of Palestinian flags at Celtic Park”.
On Wednesday the Green Brigade made clear that they would not “speak to mainstream British press regarding the current situation.”
Hours later, they released a statement which, among other things, stated that: “It is undeniable that the sanctions imposed against those affiliated with the Green Brigade are a result of the group’s unapologetic solidarity with Palestine. The sanctions applied, most notably collective bans, are evidently unfair; bereft of policy, process and communication with individuals wrongfully being punished before receiving any allegation, any evidence nor any right of defence.”
Green Brigade statement pic.twitter.com/Fjbd5kbQQa
— North Curve Celtic (@NCCeltic) November 1, 2023
Another Celtic fan group released the below statement in support of the Green Brigade during the match against St Mirren on Wednesday evening.
The Green Brigade’s support for Palestine is most definitely not new. Palestinian flags have been flown by Celtic fans generally and the Green Brigade more specifically for years and they are available to buy outside most home games.
The group was formed in 2006, initially mainly to try and improve the atmosphere at Celtic Park, which it was felt had gone stale. They have expressed their support for a number of political causes over the years, not just Palestine: they backed Black Lives Matter and have protested in strong terms against wearing the poppy for Remembrance Day and its support of the British Armed Forces.
They have displayed banners in support of Irish nationalist causes, and attracted another sanction by UEFA in 2013 when one that depicted the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was held up during a Champions League game against Milan.
They first expressed their overt support for the Palestinian cause in 2012, in solidarity with prisoners on hunger strike. They earned the club another fine in 2016 when the Israeli club Hapoel Be’er Sheva visited Glasgow and they displayed Palestinian flags: in response to the £8,600 ($10,440) fine, they raised £176,000 which was donated to Palestinian charities.
To understand why the Green Brigade and other Celtic fans support such causes, you have to go right back to the formation of the club.
Celtic was essentially founded as a charitable organisation, when a Catholic teacher known as Brother Walfrid realised that staging football matches was a good way to raise money for the poor. So in 1888, The Celtic Football Club — not, as it is often incorrectly called, Glasgow Celtic — was formed, with the money raised from their games going towards feeding people in deprived areas of Glasgow’s east end. There is a statue of Brother Walfrid, paid for with money raised by fans, outside Celtic Park.
It is impossible to underestimate how interlinked national and political identity is to many people’s support for Celtic, and indeed their Glasgow rivals Rangers. As well as a charitable cause, one of the initial purposes of the club was to provide a community hub to the Catholic diaspora moving from Ireland. “Celtic are a club started by what you might call refugees,” explains Dr Matthew McDowell, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh who specialises in the history and sociology of sport in Scotland.
The club’s Irish roots are still deeply ingrained today, and Irish tricolours are more commonly waved at Celtic Park than Scottish saltires. It is this heritage that has shaped a large section of the Celtic fanbase’s political worldview, as songs about Irish resistance against the British state and support for a united Ireland form the core of their identity. Songs about the IRA have caused regular problems over the last few decades.
By extension, they support what they see as similar causes. That is why there is such sympathy for Palestine, as they view them as oppressed people, like the Irish. It is because of this that many fans, including but not limited to the Green Brigade, see Celtic as a left-wing organisation as much as they do a football club.
The Green Brigade have sought to express those values and hold the club to those principles, but it has created tension between them and the club’s board for years. It has turned into a wrestling match for the soul of the club and what Celtic should be seen to stand for.
Another part of their statement in response to the club urging them to stop displaying Palestinian flags said: “Football remains one of the few areas of public life where working-class people have genuine political agency, and we will not be dictated to by an elitist board that has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for the history and traditions of Celtic Football Club.”
This gap between the ideology of many fans and the club has been evident for many years. “The club does not necessarily think with the same left-wing mind as some of the supporters,” says Dr McDowell, a point illustrated by the political leanings of some who have served on the club’s board.
In 2008, The Times of London reported that Venson Automotive Solutions, a company owned by Celtic’s majority shareholder Dermot Desmond, donated £50,000 to the Conservative Party. Desmond is an Irish citizen so is thus not allowed to donate to any UK political party on a personal basis.
Additionally, Ian Livingston — who was on the Celtic board from 2007 to 2017 — was appointed minister for trade and investment by Conservative prime minister David Cameron in 2013. He is known as Lord Livingston of Parkhead, having been a Conservative member of the House of Lords since 2013.
There was significant backlash from Celtic fans — not just the Green Brigade — after Livingston effectively voted in favour of cutting tax credits for some of the lowest-paid people in the country, in 2015.
More than 10,000 people signed a petition demanding his removal from the club’s board. Shareholder Jim Milligan said at the time: “His role in society is contrary to the ethos of this club and its origins and he should not be a member of the board. This is not Downton Abbey — the days of tipping the cap are over.”
The Green Brigade are not necessarily wholly representative of all Celtic fans. It is impossible to fully gauge how they are viewed because you can’t group the views of an entire fanbase under one umbrella.
There will be those who don’t support them and feel they are giving the club a bad name, but an unscientific survey of some Celtic fans by The Athletic suggests they are, at the very least, more popular than not, if only because they have improved the atmosphere at the stadium, particularly after the introduction of safe standing to their section of the stadium in 2016.
But is this going to cause a broader divide between the club and their supporters, including the Green Brigade and beyond them?
“Maybe not all fans will be angry about this, but it’s likely to increase tension,” says Dr McDowell. “Because there is a broader issue here, if we’re talking about free speech. There will be some within the Celtic support who will say, ‘Well, are we not allowed to defend ourselves anymore?’ when it comes to certain issues.”
Again, it should be made clear that Celtic officially insist that this suspension of season tickets is not because of the Palestinian flags. But it would be remarkably naive to think that it is not at the very least a factor, particularly given they did cite it in the email to supporters that explained the decision.
It read: “The Club should also note that it has been advised of a number of banners and flags used by the Green Brigade which relate to or are connected with terrorist organisations involved in the conflict in the Middle East. This is completely unacceptable at Celtic Park and any match involving Celtic Football Club. The Club is continuing to investigate these and other unacceptable instances of the group’s actions.”
The club have not given a timeline on how long these season tickets are suspended for, saying that the issue is “pending further review and communication with the group and/or the supporters in question.” But even if the Green Brigade were let back in tomorrow, this is not an issue likely to go away anytime soon.
(Top photo: Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)