The Scottish journalist and SNP politician Joan McAlpine is someone I have enormous respect for. She has worked tirelessly for the betterment of the Scottish people and nation, and she’s been a passionate advocate for the same brand of progressive nationalism that many in Ireland also embrace. So it is bitterly disappointing to read her latest article in the Scotsman newspaper addressing the divisive issue of sectarianism in Scottish soccer, particularly the long-standing rivalries between the opposing Glasgow teams of the traditionally Roman Catholic Celtic and the Protestant Rangers. Her lop-sided presentation of Ireland’s revolutionary history and her dismissive attitude towards this nation’s hard road to freedom, the same freedom the Scots now seek, is lamentable in a fellow Celtic nationalist.
“As a journalist and blogger I always felt confident about navigating my way through cyberspace with some dexterity – at least until last week when I happened to send a tweet after watching my fellow Scotsman columnist and Labour Party stalwart Michael Kelly discuss the government’s offensive behaviour bill…
I disagree with Mr Kelly’s position that the Offensive Behaviour and Football and Threatening Communications Bill victimises football fans. He attempted to distinguish between different kinds of songs supporting the IRA – an argument I have heard before. This line of thinking suggests that pre-Provisional IRA songs, many of which date back centuries, are historical and inoffensive.
One could argue that the Irish national anthem, The Soldier’s Song, was supportive of the IRA, while The Boys of the Old Brigade was played this year when The Queen visited Dublin. Exactly the same argument could be made for some Ulster unionist songs too. An old favourite such as The Sash is a celebration of religious and political identity which does not advocate attacking Catholics.”
I’m sorry, Joan, but that is an entirely specious argument. Amhrán na bhFiann is the national anthem of Ireland. It commemorates and celebrates our historic struggle for freedom and is indelibly associated with the Irish Revolution – and yes, of course, the Irish Republican Army that fought that revolution. It is not a sectarian “chant” or simply a “pro-IRA” song. It is a national anthem, no different from one that may be adopted by any future Scottish nation. The Sash, a very current folk-song of the British ethnic minority, bears no comparison. And the Sash most certainly does celebrate violence and attacks against the Roman Catholic and the ethnically non-British population of the island of Ireland. To state otherwise is simply untrue.
“But there are circumstances in which these songs, for pragmatic reasons of public safety should not be sung. That includes a football match. The heated atmosphere of the Old Firm means “folk songs” take on a far more sinister tone. And these are the borderline ballads…”
Is Ms. McAlpine suggesting that the Irish national anthem should not be played in Scotland (let alone that it is “borderline”)? Even at a national level? Will international fixtures featuring Ireland and Scotland be, per force, anthem free? Will an independent Scotland deny a visiting Irish head of state the standard courtesy of playing Ireland’s national anthem, if enough militant Glasgow and Borders’ Loyalists object? I trust Joan is not saying that, but it shows how arguments like this can be abused and misused.
“So I disagreed with Mr Kelly when he appeared to be arguing that IRA songs of a certain vintage were no more offensive than Flower of Scotland. The issue is one of context. Rugby fans don’t attack each other after singing Flower of Scotland.”
Well soccer fans do, and Scottish and English fans did so throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. It seems Joan McAlpine can only see the context she wants to see. There then follows some of the most mendacious writing on Irish history that I’ve seen from a contemporary Scottish nationalist.
“Suggesting that IRA singing is political as opposed to sectarian, and should therefore be treated differently to chants about wading through Fenian blood, is disingenuous. The approaching 1916 centenary has led some Irish academics to re-examine the war that followed the uprising. There were atrocities on all sides and that included attacks on Protestants, including one particularly notorious incident in Cork. The indiscriminate bombing from the 1970s onwards claimed innocent lives on all sides.
It is a disgrace to Scotland that football allows some warped individuals to stoke up sporting rivalry on the back of those killing times.”
The Irish Republican Army fought the Irish War of Independence. The war the Irish fought to free the greater part of our people and the greater part of our country because of the refusal of the British state to accept the democratically expressed wishes of the vast majority of voters on the island of Ireland for independence. Does Ms. McAlpine know or understand this? Or does she, like many on the Right and Left in England, question our very right to have done so?
As for the alleged re-examination of the Irish Revolution, the majority of those who are carrying it out are British nationalist historians and their Neo-Unionist sympathisers in Ireland. These writers, some of whom are completely lacking in any academic credentials, are little more than apologists for the British Empire in Ireland. Does Joan McAlpine realise the debate going on in this country, the level of acrimony and hurt created by these revisionist apologists?
The “notorious incident” in Cork that she refers to, the subject of a recent rather more notorious book claiming to chronicle the revolutionary struggle in south-western Ireland, has been thoroughly debunked by Irish, Canadian and American historians. It is nonsense. Complete and utter. Good God, Joan, you are supposed to be a Scottish nationalist. Have you no understanding or empathy at all for your fellow Celtic nationalists? Can you not see through the same lies and counter-factual histories used against Ireland’s struggle for freedom that are used against your own nation’s struggle too?
While one can reasonably argue that the most recent conflict in the North of Ireland is so controversial and so painful to so many grieving families and communities that any references to it should be rightly removed from the arena of sports, that rule must apply to all sides. Not just one. If some Irish Republican songs and symbols that refer to the thirty-year armed struggle of the Provisional Irish Republican Army are to be banned so too should their counterparts on the other side. The other side, Joan, includes the thirty year counter-insurgency struggle of the British Army. Where do you stand on the presence of the Royal British Legion poppy in some sports grounds in Scotland where it may cause offence or public disorder? Should the poppy be banned from Celtic Park?
Perhaps I feel the pain caused by this article particularly acutely and others will disagree with me or dismiss Joan McAlpine’s views as the result of ignorance (or more worryingly the counter-intuitive strain of anti-Irish sentiment that ran through some SNP members in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s). Yet, whatever justifications there may be for removing references to the most recent conflict between the Irish and British nations in Celtic Park or Ibrox Stadium, and in truth it is a matter for the Scottish people, ignorance is no excuse for gratuitously rewriting Irish history to match the distorted fantasies of contemporary British nationalist historians.
I’m a Gaelic Nationalist and I have many Scottish friends who would describe themselves the same way. We see Ireland and Scotland as two separate nations derived from one historic people, the Gaels. We share a common heritage, ethnicity, language, literature and culture. We celebrate and cherish this. We see it as a strength. However, I fear some in the Scottish nationalist tradition see it as a weakness and would rather that such “alien” links did not exist at all. They see only the anglicised, Anglophone Scotland of recent centuries. This is their Scotland. Not the one that extends across the Sruth na Maoile.
The history of Ireland’s struggle for freedom is also Scotland’s history, one we share together. From the Gallóglaigh to the Glasgow Brigade, the GPO to the Clydeside, Irish and Scottish patriots have supported and fought alongside each other. Joan McAlpine knows that. And if she doesn’t she damn well should.