Arrests in Old Firm hate raids
POLICE yesterday launched a series of raids to crack down on sectarian abuse posted on the internet by Old Firm fans who conduct vicious online hate campaigns.
On the eve of one of the most significant Old Firm fixtures of modern times, a team of Strathclyde police officers detained two men in their 20s during early morning operations in Glasgow and Paisley. They were later charged with alleged sectarian breaches of the peace.
More arrests are expected today and raids will continue over coming weeks as Strathclyde Police close in on around 50 people suspected of posting sectarian invective.
Today's Old Firm game will be played in a tinder-box atmosphere, triggered by last week's revelation that the Celtic manager Neil Lennon, his QC Paul McBride and the Celtic-supporting politician Trish Godman were sent nail bombs through the post.
Yesterday, a political row erupted over efforts to tackle bigotry when the former First Minister Lord McConnell suggested that Alex Salmond had not displayed leadership since coming to power four years ago and was guilty of "appeasement" when dealing with the religious hatred that has marred Scotland's most intense sporting rivalry.
The remarks by McConnell, who made tackling sectarianism one of his administration's key priorities, will catapult the issue to the forefront of the Holyrood election campaign. Labour leader Iain Gray called for a cross-party approach to tackling sectarianism.
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McConnell said: "I hope the game passes without incident and that recent events have been a wake up call for everyone involved – not just fanatics, but those in positions of responsibility," he said.
"In particular, politicians must move from the appeasement of recent years to a long term sustained effort to rid Scotland of this cancer within a generation. We need leadership, not just in the clubs but in the Scottish Government too."
In the past, McConnell has accused Salmond of failing to build on the work he did to clamp down on sectarianism. It was during his tenure as First Minister that the offence of sectarian breach of the peace, under which yesterday's arrests were made, was created.
Yesterday morning, at 8am, a team of 12 officers swooped on two addresses. A 23-year-old was arrested in Paisley and a 27-year-old was arrested in Dalmarnock in the east end of Glasgow. The pair have been charged and will appear at Glasgow Sheriff Court on Tuesday.
Strathclyde Police said the homes of around 50 other suspects are to be raided over the next days and weeks as part of an anti-sectarian drive that they have been planning for the last eight weeks. The Internet Service Providers Association and media companies are co-operating with the police to help officers hunt down offenders.
Superintendent Kirk Kinnell, of Strathclyde Police's Anti-violence Directorate, said: "I would like to deliver a clear message to those who continue to make hate-filled comments and cause distress to decent members of the public that we will pursue you relentlessly until this behaviour is stopped.
"Some people seem to think that they are anonymous online or can hide in a crowd, but technology can also be used to bring the police directly to you wherever you are."
The crackdown began at the end of a week that saw Old Firm sectarian hatred rise to a new and potentially- lethal level. The interception of three letter bombs which had been destined for prominent people associated with Celtic shocked the nation.
McConnell's remarks were last night criticised by the SNP with a party spokesman saying that a Joint Action Group had been set up to look at religious hatred. The SNP also had plans to increase sentences for sectarian offences from six months to five years and were penalising people who posted sectarian abuse on the internet.
The spokesman said: "Alex Salmond is providing leadership and Lord McConnell should also reflect on the need for unity to combat this evil."
Last night, Salmond called on the genuine Old Firm fans to follow the Tartan Army's example and to use "self- policing" to get rid of bigotry.
"The Scottish Government has a zero tolerance approach to tackling sectarianism, and the police will do their job before, during and after the match for the sake of justice and public safety. But we cannot win the battle against sectarian crime alone – everyone with an interest can help," Salmond said. "The vast majority of genuine fans – the real football supporters – want nothing to do with the bigots, and (today's match) is an opportunity for them to demonstrate that they will not allow their club to be tarnished by the sectarian behaviour of the minority."
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