Monday, November 10, 2008

Celtic wrong on applause for war dead

Graham Spiers 10/11/08 - The Times

One of the most moving experiences of my life was in spending a week a few years ago visiting the theatres of battle of the First World War in France. These humble little villages where the fighting unfolded – such as Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Bapaume and Beaucourt – remain scarred and pockmarked to this day by the terrible events of 90 years ago. Farmers in the region still talk about their “Iron Harvest”, when various bits of bullet, shell or other implements of battle are dug up every day as they go about their work.

And all around this beautiful region wild poppies sway in the breeze.

I grew up wearing a poppy around the week of Armistice but, ever since that visit to France, I have worn one with an even greater sense of gratitude. The poppy, surely, is nothing if not a simple, sombre, dignified symbol of remembrance for all men and women who died in battle. The poppy is not meant to be imbued with either political or religious significance. It says simply and uncomplicatedly: “We remember them.”

This debate has spilt into the football arena this Armistice weekend, with Celtic attracting criticism for holding a minute’s applause rather than a minute’s silence before their match against Motherwell on Saturday. And, while Celtic Park resounded with appreciative applause, I believe Celtic were wrong to reject the traditional time of silence as a means of honouring Europe’s war dead.

The Celtic Park club have tried to claim that a minute’s applause is now the done thing in British football, citing the recent deaths of Tommy Burns and Jimmy Johnstone as moments when just such acts were held at Celtic Park. But the annual Armistice commemoration is different. All across Britain this weekend, almost without exception, periods of silence – for one minute or two – are being held. And there is a liturgical difference between staging a rousing applause for one man’s life, and the same act for millions who sacrificed their lives in circumstances which many would argue warrant no applause whatsoever.

This is a sensitive subject, but let’s be blunt about it. Celtic did not hold a minute’s applause on Saturday because they thought it was the new fashion. On the contrary, Celtic organised an applause because the club was worried that a minute’s silence would be marred by protesters within their ranks.

It takes a particularly skewed sense of outrage to want to desecrate a time of silence for innocent men and women who died in battle, yet that is what a few indignant hotheads wanted to do at Celtic Park. Leaflets were handed out before the Motherwell game and, of all things, those twin imposters of evil – the humble poppy and a time of silence – were deemed to be things of outrage.

It is embarrassing for Celtic that such people should cause the club a problem, and, mercifully, their particular interpretation of Armistice weekend is rejected by more than 99 per cent of Celtic fans. But that was the situation the club faced on Saturday. Peter Lawwell, the Celtic chief executive, simply could not risk the excruciating scene of a minute’s silence being violated, so applause was chosen instead.

Such controversies surrounding the more extreme elements who follow the Old Firm have their complications. Lord knows, Rangers suffer enough from it. But in Celtic’s case, the club’s Irish roots, while wanting to be rightfully celebrated, can trigger such unrest among supporters, as well as the type of offensive singing we heard again from Celtic fans at Tynecastle last weekend.

I have little doubt that this latest Armistice squabble at Celtic Park, for those who feel fevered about it, has its roots in the interface of Irish and British history. It just seems a pity to me that those who died in battle many years ago should once again be the victims.

Remembrance Weekend, surely, can rise above all the current efforts to politicise it or score points. Just as there is a small group of Celtic fans who want to upstage the memory of the Armistice as something objectionable
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