ONE of Scotland's foremost historians has entered the debate over sectarian singing, saying a sheriff had "no alternative" but to dismiss a charge of "religiously aggravated" breach of the peace against a man accused of singing songs referencing the IRA.
Professor Tom Devine said the case had "significant legal implications" for how prosecutors and police responded to the behaviour of fans at Old Firm matches, and said "those who sing songs of hate against another religious group are, prima facie, committing an offence".
Prof Devine, the Sir William Fraser professor of Scottish history and palaeography at Edinburgh University, said the sheriff in the case, where he was called as an expert witness, ruled that the IRA was a "republican military organisation" that was "not sectarian in intent".
He added that those who showed support for the organisation were found not to be "showing 'malice or ill-will towards members of a religious group'", as defined under Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003.
Prof Devine told The Scotsman yesterday that "the sheriff had no alternative but to come to the conclusion which he did in light of the religious focus" of section 74.
However, the general secretary of the Rangers Supporters Association, John Macmillan, said he strongly disagreed with the professor's comments, saying they were "unworthy of a man of Tom Devine's standing".
Mr Macmillan said: "It seems to be one-way traffic at the moment. It seems the Rangers supporters are the only ones who are talked down.
"Quite clearly some of the songs sung by Rangers supporters are unacceptable - but it seems non-Rangers people seem to be in denial about anything their fans do, and people like Tom Devine seem to support that view.
"From their point of view, Rangers fans are the only ones singing unacceptible songs - and that is not the case. It is always argued the Celtic supporters are singing 'folk songs' - but their songs are glorifying the IRA.
"It gets a bit tiring when Rangers supporters are singled out and Celtic supporters glorified. The whole thing is a bit of a mess."
David McLetchie, the former MSP who is seeking re-election to the Scottish Parliament as the member for Edinburgh Pentlands, said the law needed to be clarified: "The case to which Tom Devine refers proves conclusively what I have maintained all along, which is that the legislation is not focused on what most people in Scotland would call sectarian behaviour.
"The legislation needs to be re-examined."
Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, said: "While much attention has been given to the topic of sectarianism, unfortunately an informed perspective has been lacking. If neither the fans who sing 'sectarian' songs nor the officials charged with policing them have an accurate understanding or definition of the term, it seems unlikely they will be able to respond, far less eradicate such behaviour."A Crown Office spokesman said: "Offending motivated by prejudice will not be tolerated, and the perpetrators of any incidents of this nature will be dealt with robustly."