Stoking the Fire
Last week Celtic manager Neil Lennon announced that he was taking action against Celtic player Anthony Stokes for ‘damaging the reputation of the club’. Yet another sectarian incident? Another racist comment? Another violent outburst on the pitch? Not at all. Anthony Stokes is facing disciplinary action for returning to his home town of Dublin to attend the memorial service of a childhood friend who was shot dead a few months ago.
Unfortunately for Stokes, his childhood friends’ face does not fit the respectable image of Celtic football club and has not found favour with the tabloid press. Alan Ryan, who was gunned down in Dublin by a criminal gang in September, was a member of the Real IRA, a group of Irish republicans who oppose the peace process. To their supporters this group is carrying on the principled tradition of support for armed opposition to British rule in Ireland, to the majority of people they are a shadowy group talking politics while engaging in criminal actives and drug dealing.
But what you think of the Real IRA is irrelevant to this story and no-one is even claiming that Stokes supports the group or its political goals. He was merely attending the memorial to remember his friend and to help raise money for the family left behind – the kind of fundraising benefit that is common in Ireland when people are killed in these kind of circumstances.
‘Celtic tell Anthony Stokes he has damaged the club’s reputation for attending IRA memorial event’ was the Telegraph headline and ‘Your Last Chance’ was the message from the Sunday Mail. Manager Neil Lennon described it as ‘make or break time’ for Stokes and chillingly reassured the press that Stokes now ‘understands’ that he cannot ‘damage the reputation of the club’ and ‘has taken this on board’
With the exception of some noisy chants in support of Stokes by the feisty ‘Green Brigade’ section of fans at Saturday’s Celtic game, all agree that the moral lapse here was the decision by Stokes to attend his friends’ memorial. But I beg to differ. My moral compass applauds Stokes for putting solidarity with old friends over conforming to what the authorities deem to be acceptable behavior.
And where is the moral outrage against an employer demanding that an employee boycotts a memorial event for a friend who has been killed in tragic circumstances in their own private time. I have been living and working in London for many years now and in that time have attended the funerals of too many young republicans from back home in Belfast. if I had thought for one minute that working here meant missing funerals that did not meet with the approval of my English colleagues I would have been on the first plane home long ago.
The outrageous treatment of Stokes is a part and parcel of the moralization of football. Our footballers are no longer young men who have a special talent and skills with a ball, they have become role models for our times. They must rise against all the wider ills of our society and show others how to behave. One thing they are not allowed to do however is to decide what good behaviour looks like – that is decided on their behalf by their clubs, the police and politicians. This of course comes as no surprise to fans. For many years now Celtic fans and those of our main rivals Rangers have been told what acceptable behaviour looks like. We have been told how much we can drink on the way to games, what we are allowed to say and sing inside the grounds and how to treat our wives when we get home. Just to drive home the message that the authorities mean business, Scotland now has laws that can see fans in prison for up to 5 years for ‘communications’ that the authorities deem offensive.
Stokes’ decision to support the family of a controversial friend at a tragic time did not pass the current acceptable behaviour test and we are all meant to be breathing a sigh of relief that after a long talking to from the manager, Stokes now understands that attending this memorial damaged the club’s reputation.
The debate over this small incident is deeply depressing
It’s depressing that no-one has objected to the outrageous intrusion of an employer into the private choices made by a footballer governing the use of his own private time
It is depressing because of the breath taking conformism it represents, that footballers must all act as role models and those role models must stick to moral codes of conduct defined by narrow minded authorities who deem what language is acceptable and what kind of religious and political beliefs are acceptable.
It is depressing because of the double standards. We know from the new vogue for official poppy wearing amongst football clubs and one minutes silence on Remembrance Day that football is not a politics free zone. But it seems enthusiastic support for the UK’s armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are deemed acceptable while anything to do with Irish republicanism is against the pale
I remember many years ago when Seamus Heaney, one of Ireland’s most famous poets and ‘national Treasure’ in both the UK and Ireland angered a minority of loyalists by attending a high profile wake of an IRA man and hunger striker Francis Hughes. Politicians and commentators leapt to his defence, presenting his critics as an embittered minority and defending the right of artists and public figures to base such decisions on their conscience. What a difference a few years makes. Now almost everyone including journalists, politicians and football managers feel comfortable sitting in judgment over the private decisions of one football player.