Comment: undo offensive behaviour at football law

Members of Celtic's Green Brigade are 'kettled' by Strathclyde Police. Picture: submitted

Members of Celtic's Green Brigade are 'kettled' by Strathclyde Police. Picture: submitted

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WHERE now for our much vaunted policies against football violence and sectarianism?

Any claims for the success of the recent offensive behaviour at football legislation were blown away in the smoke from the flares that rose over Firhill during last week’s under-17s Old Firm clash. Seizing on the only excuse they have had this season to express their drunken hatred of each other, the “same small minority” (about 6,000 strong) marched up Maryhill Road in disorganised determination and had their riot. These were not veterans re-fighting old battles, the culprits were in their teens. This is as far as we have got since the government was misled into spending millions trying to tackle sectarianism through addressing football hooliganism.

This week, the list of bodies receiving the money that the Scottish Government is doling out in pursuit of its policy reads like a sociologist’s funding dream. Strangely, apart from funding enforcement of the singing-of-naughty-songs at matches clause in the act, it hardly addresses football at all. The riot was not stopped by spending on “portal projects” (£87,000 on one of those) or an “integrative complexity project” (one of those is costing you £167,000) or “Lederach’s Peace Model”, that’s £111,000. A respected body like Nil by Mouth, which has a track record in this field, received a mere £350 increase because it was wary of the law’s intervention.

Yet, new organisations willing to pay lip service to it have sprung up to drink in the cash offered by a government desperately trying to back up its promises to eradicate one of the blight’s on our fair and just society. We now have the best funded anti-sectarianism industry in the United Kingdom and the greatest proliferation of organisations falling over each other to stick their oar in the water – or, rather, their spanner in the works; because we are getting nowhere. Witness the Catholic Church’s conclusion: “None of the public money committed to date has improved, resolved or remedied the underlying problem of religious intolerance.”

We are getting nowhere because policy has been developed by the SNP in a knee-jerk and ad hoc way. It has not even developed a clear, legal definition of what sectarian behaviour is. The present push against hooliganism provoked by hatred began with a few minor incidents during an Old Firm match in the days when both clubs were in the same division. The police led an over-reaction to which the First Minister responded by calling a one-day conference which, he announced, had discovered the solution.

Legislation followed. Thus the flawed logic was laid down in statute. Football was at the heart of sectarianism and it would be stamped out by the police. The draconian powers this gave the police would surely fail any challenge before the European Court of Human Rights. Illegal acts, words and song remain undefined, leaving these crimes to be determined solely by the police.

It has led to glaring injustices, video surveillance of thousands of people, dawn raids on suspects, banning orders from football grounds as a condition of bail of those charged but not tried. One Lanarkshire fan charged in Dundee had to travel to that city every time his team were playing to prove he wasn’t at the match. He was subsequently found not guilty.

This is a law from a government so concerned about the human rights of the biggest mass murderer in Scottish history that they sent him home on holiday. Here, the rights of citizens are trodden on. Their law is now described as “mince” by a sheriff.

But despite this tripe and the number of arrests the police have been delighted to make under it and the suppression of freedom of speech it represents, all it took was one small crowd at one match to demonstrate its irrelevance and ineffectiveness in stopping trouble at games and in changing attitudes among the young.

Anyone with a modicum of foresight could have predicted that this game would be a flashpoint for thugs. The riot could have been stopped by traditional laws – from breach of the peace upward – and by direct police intervention. Yet, there were only three arrests. Either reports of the trouble were greatly exaggerated or the police declined to enter the fray and stamp it out.

Legal niceties don’t seem to matter with this law. This major aspect of anti-sectarianism is all about enforcement. Of all the money the government has allocated to this, the largest tranche – £2 million – went to FoCUS, a specialist police football unit. This is great news for the boys in blue – more laws, more crimes, more demand for officers.

Sectarianism is likely to be with us for a very long time. Disgusting though it is, is it worth the priority that politicians want to give it above, say, poverty? If the answer is “yes”, then the whole approach needs to be rethought. The government has kicked this revision out the park by extending the work of its advisory group on the issue by a further six months, by which time all the money allocated to tackle sectarianism will have been spent before the government gets advice on how best to spend it.

This is what happens when publicity-seeking first ministers fall over the cameras in an attempt to solve problems by proclamation. The law Alex Salmond introduced was an unjust law. It does not even work. As Fans Against Criminalisation has taken its campaign to the streets and to Holyrood, now is the time for the government to admit that its half-baked expensive dog’s breakfast of a policy is not working.

The SNP is already suffering politically for its blunders, especially in the west of Scotland. Repeal the law, separate the issue of hooliganism at football matches from the broader problem and tackle it using traditional police methods. Then take the issue off the political agenda by setting up an all-party body to devise a thought-through long-term policy.

There was trouble in Newcastle two weeks ago after a derby match with Sunderland. No-one sought to produce deep social causes for it; it was merely thuggish behaviour. Unless we separate the two, we will be replaying these issues again and again like some nightmarish cup final.

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