30 Sep 2013

Armed forces’ involvement in a sectarian Rangers ‘party’ a PR disaster

It’s not about Rangers. It’s about the Ministry of Defence.

The one thing any soldier (rightly) runs a mile from is getting into anything deemed “political”. Our armed forces need to be seen to be distanced from politics. Theirs is the lonely and dangerous business of doing the bidding of our politicians for better or worse.

In recent years that has meant fighting long, unwinnable wars, far from these islands, with little support or thanks from voters and politicians who would rather Iraq and Afghanistan just somehow went away.

More from Alex Thomson on Rangers

That is why the scenes at Ibrox on Saturday are scarcely credible and stain the reputation of Britain’s armed forces.

An orderly parade of service personnel from all three forces marched onto the pitch to the accompaniment of a military band. It was dignified. The kind of thing you would see at many a carnival event across Britain.

What happened next was not dignified. It was a PR disaster for all three services, and the MoD has only escaped wider damage because an event that looks so tawdry to outside eyes and ears is still considered normal in this part of Scotland. So normal that is has barely been mentioned in the Scottish media, which speaks volumes.

For a prolonged period, British armed forces in uniform waved, clapped, danced, did the “bouncy” and snapped their selfies in front of fans – as the Ibrox faithful went through their repertoire of Rule Britannia, Derry’s Walls, The Sash and so forth. A number of chants praised the Northern Irish paramilitary organisation the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Like Celtic fans praising the IRA, this is illegal under recent Scottish anti-sectarian laws.

It’s not clear whether or not the scores of uniformed soldiers actually joined in with the singing – but they very much joined in in every other conceivable way, lending their obvious and very public support to a litany of sectarian songs. It was a party – a loud, sectarian, political party. The British Army, air force and navy were taking sides. The evidence is all there, all over YouTube (see above), posted by loyal Rangers fans who thought it was all an innocent grand day out.

Now – love ’em or loathe ’em, sectarian songs are a fact of life and tradition in Ibrox as they are at Celtic Park.

That’s not the key issue here. The problem is with our servicemen and women being exposed to this and hung out to dry by their commanders who seem to have the PR skills of a garden slug. This is the British Army, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy – and some years into a delicate peace process in Northern Ireland.

You can’t expose young people in the ranks to this and expect them to do anything else but let their hair down. What is idiotic and so far unexplained, is how they were put into this position by their commanding officers.

It was so easy: march on. Stand and enjoy the applause. March off.

Who thought allowing these people to be sucked into this deeply political cauldron and be made idiots of, was somehow a clever plan? The MoD either lost control of this event or, worse, never thought to impose any. We await answers to these questions from the MoD and, in particular, the General Officer Commanding Scotland, Major General Nick Eeles.

A man walks past a Rangers' soccer club poster at their Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland

All this just months after the GOC Scotland wrote to people who complained that last year’s remembrance parade at Ibrox, with abseiling and other attractions, was at best tasteless: “The General Officer Commanding Scotland has now had the opportunity to review the events that took place at Ibrox Park with the other service heads in Scotland. They share your view that the format of the half-time event and the conduct of those taking part in it was inappropriate for remembrance weekend and will take steps to ensure that such events are conducted with appropriate solemnity in the future.”

If the GOC believes a little light abseil action is “inappropriate”, I await with interest his views of what happened at Ibrox this weekend, where professional British forces in uniform were allowed to become sectarian cheerleaders. It wasn’t just ugly – it was unprofessional. All this while the top brass were in a box at Ibrox, watching it unfold.

What should have been a dignified display in belated celebration of armed forces day degenerated into a corporate car crash for HM Forces plc. The regional chief exec, GOC  Eeles, owes the wider public beyond Ibrox some kind of explanation.

The basis of professional armed forces is that they must be, and be seen to be, non-political. The commanding officers of our forces in Scotland seem to have entirely forgotten that. Or, like much of the Scottish media, they simply didn’t see anything amiss here. The former would be grossly naïve. The latter, tragic.’

UPDATE: Following a number of questions to the Ministry of Defence regarding the scenes at Ibrox on Saturday, Channel 4 News has received the following response;

An MoD spokesperson said: “We are aware that Police Scotland are investigating an allegation relating to the behaviour of some fans at Saturday’s game at Ibrox. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.

“Any personnel found to have fallen short of the Armed Forces’ values and standards will be dealt with by the chain of command and, if necessary, by the police.”

Because of the complaint to Police Scotland and the possibility of military disciplinary action being taken against some of the service personnel involved, the MoD was unable to comment further upon what happened.

However the ministry did add that there are no plans at present to stop any future celebrations of Armed Forces Day happening during the autumn at Ibrox.

So the up-sum of all this is that action may or my not be taken against those in uniform deemed to have crossed the line and whilst there are no plans to stop the parade and it’s hard to see why anyone could reasonably object to the parade part of it, the interest will be about whether in future those in uniform on the pitch are left to their own devices to go over and join in with the fans in the way so many did on Saturday.

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