A Celtic State of Mind – Celtic & Politics, Part 3: The tricolour

The troublesome behaviour by some fans at the traditional New Year’s Day encounter in 1952 between Celtic and Rangers resulted in fighting, bottle-throwing and pitch invasions. If the result wasn’t bad enough (Celtic lost 4-1), the aftermath had the potential to be even more damaging. Included in a number of recommendations that Glasgow Magistrates made to the SFA following these shameful scenes was, “That the two clubs should avoid displaying flags which might incite feeling among the spectators.” Cheerled and undoubtedly influenced by SFA Secretary, George Graham (who had a deep-rooted derision for Celtic and all that the club stood for) and Hibs’ Chairman, Harry Swan (who was then the acting SFA President), the Referee Committee of the SFA thereafter voted 26-7 to prevent Celtic from flying any, “flag or emblem which had no association with football or Scotland.” Ultimately, Celtic were ordered to remove the tricolour which had been displayed for 30 years, and which had been replaced when Taoiseach Eamon De Valera (Prime Minister of Ireland) gifted them a new one in homage to the club’s very foundation.

Celtic’s punishment for refusing to remove the flag? Expulsion from the league.

Chairman, Robert Kelly, knowing that Celtic had not broken any SFA rules, refused to stop flying the flag and he was supported by the Rangers Chairman, John F Wilson, whose vote was the decisive one when the matter progressed to a ballot involving member clubs. The fact that Rangers voted in favour of their city rivals may seem unusual, but they knew even then that this fierce and often grisly ‘Old Firm’ rivalry was good for business.

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Tenacious and stubborn, often to a fault, the autocratic Robert Kelly stood his ground and protected the very heritage of Celtic Football Club, who continued to celebrate the Irish roots from which the club had flourished. In ‘The Celtic Story’ by James Handley, which was commissioned by Robert Kelly and published in 1960, Handley commented on the flag furore, “It might have been the flag of Siam for all the attention that any spectator, supporting home or visiting team, gave to it, and if it had been the flag of Siam the SFA would have paid no attention to it, either. What ruffled the feelings of that body was the fact that it was the flag of Ireland. It would seem that an official of long-standing in the SFA was the prime agitator for its removal.”

It was a battle won, but the anti-Irish war raged on, and it reared its ugly head again when terrace hooliganism became the focus of the SFA’s chagrin some 20 years later…

Sir Robert Kelly (who had been knighted for his services to football in 1969, the first Scottish football Chairman to be bestowed with such an accolade) was replaced as Chairman by long-time director, Desmond White, who once said of the aforementioned SFA Secretary, George Graham, “He’ll roast in hell for what he tried to do to Celtic.” Little over a year after being named as Chairman, White was himself faced with opposition from the authorities over Celtic’s flying of the Irish tricolour.

In the Celtic View of 30 August 1972, White felt prompted to reproduce a letter he had sent to Glasgow Magistrates, following their request that Celtic removed the Éire flag from Celtic Park in order to combat hooliganism. Celtic’s decision to keep the tricolour flying at Parkhead was met with further controversy and criticism:

“The Directors and management of the Celtic Football Club were summoned in the company of others, to the City Chambers to take part in the discussion with the Magistrates, firstly to analyse the causes of hooliganism at football matches and thereafter to work out together, measures to combat hooliganism in all its forms. The Magistrates thereafter made a request to Celtic Football Club to remove the tricolour from the enclosure at Celtic Park.

“Celtic is neither a sectarian, political or religious organisation… The club has long and deliberately pursued a policy of resistance to sectarian activities. We choose our employees at all levels on merit alone and we will continue to do so… Celtic is primarily a Scottish club. We are proud of our Scottish heritage. We have brought, we believe, great distinction to Scotland, particularly in the last seven years through our performances in Europe.

“The flying of the tricolour is, as you are aware, part of our ceremonial display of flags of many nations… It is indeed a sad comment on the bigotry which still appears to exist in the West of Scotland that this should be looked upon as an act of provocation… Furthermore, it should be remembered that we in Britain are supposed to be living in a democracy. We are all entitled to our views, sentiments and sympathies and surely the Celtic Football Club is not to be forced to show ingratitude to those who were their friends when the club was first founded.

“One aspect of the flying of the flag does, however, seriously perturb the board. It has been suggested to us that the flag is in some ways a focal or rallying point for a certain unruly element within our support. We genuinely do not believe this to be the case… We cannot, however, consider lowering the tricolour at this moment in time. Indeed, the precipitate action of the Magistrates since our meeting has rendered it impossible for the Celtic board to accede to their demand… By refusing to haul down the colours, Celtic in no sense regard their stance as a victory over the city’s magistrates or anyone else… By continuing to exercise their right to fly the flag at Celtic Park the directors are satisfied that they are acting in the best interests of the club and its support.”

The belief that the flying of an Irish tricolour could somehow antagonise a crowd of Scottish football fans into acts of hooliganism said as much about the attitudes of the authorities as it did about their perception of a large proportion of Scottish society. Having refused on two occasions to abandon an integral emblem of the club’s very fabric, Celtic astonishingly faced further opposition to the flying of the flag as recently as 1994. Having saved the club from financial ruin, Fergus McCann set out to redevelop Celtic Park, which had been deemed unfit for purpose. This meant that Celtic played their home games at Hampden Park for the entirety of 1994/95, as McCann recalled in an open letter to the Herald newspaper in 2017, “In charge of Celtic, and having to rent the stadium for the 94/95 season, I had to tolerate the mean-spirited behaviour of Queens Park officials throughout that period. This began with a clause in the lease – a ‘deal breaker’ as their attorney made clear – that forbade ‘the display of any foreign flag’. Shades of SFA 1952.” There is no doubt that the “foreign flag” referenced by McCann was the same tricolour that caused the authorities such distress in 1952 and 1972.

The oppressive, anti-Irish attitudes faced by Robert Kelly, Desmond White and Fergus McCann have sadly not been banished to the depths of time. During a league encounter between Celtic and Dundee at Dens Park on 17 March 2019, a Celtic supporter’s tricolour was unceremoniously snatched from display by a steward. Despite initial claims by the club that it was due to it being draped over an advertising board, it was interesting that no other flag positioned in a similar way around the stadium was given such prompt and aggressive treatment. Dundee later apologised for the manner in which the flag was seized, which they admitted was, “not acceptable”.

Paul John Dykes

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