Brian Wilson: Let the people sing – yes, even football supporters

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The Scottish Government is attacking symptoms rather than root causes with its attempt at a new form of censorship

LET ME open with a voluntary confession for Scotland’s Song Police: I know all the words of Kevin Barry and have been heard to sing them. Indeed, I think the last time was in the drawing room of Hillsborough Castle when the portrait of Lord Brookeborough glaring down at us made the temptation irresistible. “Another martyr for Old Ireland, another murder for the Crown”, and all that.

The reason I know the words is that I am the product of youthful conditioning, just as all of us are. We are brought up with traditions, values and our parents’ beliefs. As we grow older, we sort them out in our adult heads. We determine our own versions of right and wrong. We choose our own songs. I was brought up to detest sectarianism, support republicanism over monarchy, follow Celtic and regard Irish unification as a just cause. I have never seen reason to regret any strand of that DNA. Just to confuse (though there are no contradictions involved), I was not from a Catholic background.

As a rational adult, I quickly worked out there was nothing romantic about violence and grew wary of songs that glorified it, even at a distance in time. The poor sods on the receiving end of flashing bayonets and echoing Thomson guns were no more deserving of their fates than the later victims of Semtex and AK-47s.

For wholly explicable historic reasons, a reality of Scottish life is that large numbers of people identify with one tradition or another that has roots in Ireland. To those who have no such affinities, this may seem unfortunate or anachronistic, particularly because it has a habit of presenting itself through the medium of football. But society rests on mutual tolerance and respect. Nobody’s sense of personal identity, or the expressions that go with it, can be legislated away, and it is a fool’s errand to try. No particular group of people should be singled out for special treatment, to the point of criminalisation, to satisfy a political agenda but in the absence of rational argument.

Yet this is exactly what is now happening through the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, which the Scottish Government appears determined to press ahead with. If ever there was a counterproductive piece of legislation in the making, this is surely it. Let’s separate some of the arguments. First, the Threatening Communications aspect is non-controversial. If there are gaps in current law that prevent the police from prosecuting the purveyors of death threats, sectarian or racial poison (incidentally, why not political also?) then of course cyberspace should be legislated for in the same way as other channels of communication. The complaint about the remainder of the bill is that there are no such gaps in current law. If people breach the peace or commit acts of violence, they are guilty of offences, whatever the motives. However, Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 added the concept of “statutory aggravation for offences motivated by religious prejudice” and requires courts to take account of that factor in sentencing.

Equally, expressions of support for terrorist organisations is dealt with by the Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act of 2006. If these acts of “stirring up hatred” occur at football matches, they will result in criminal sentences that include banning orders. So that deals with misguided miscreants who shout “Ooh, ah, up the ’RA” though heaven knows what “RA” they are referring to when Martin McGuinness and the DUP are now the best of pals in a partitioned Ireland.

For good measure, Celtic have given life bans this season alone to 13 individuals who were detected uttering the forbidden words. That is the way it has to be. The tragedy for these individuals is that they have probably no more than the vaguest idea what they are shouting about. But the existing law, plus the action of clubs, makes a red card mandatory.

If there is any justification for new legislation, it must lie in banning something that is not already covered. But what can that be? To muddy the waters, its apologists throw in the Tynecastle assault on Neil Lennon. But the last I heard, assault is illegal in Scotland. On the other hand, the new legislation does not cover the mindset of Scottish juries – which does rather suggest it is aiming at the wrong target and, indeed, the easy one.

Under the new legislation, the potential criminalisation of singing football supporters is to be a matter for the judgment of police officers “having regard to the nature and words of the song”. Apart from placing another unwanted burden on police officers, who will now come under pressure to define what people can and cannot sing, this catch-all formula creates a form of censorship unique to football supporters.

If a song is illegal on grounds of racism or prejudice it should surely be illegal full stop – not only for football supporters. Then Roseanna Cunningham, the minister responsible for this nonsense, piously suggests there is no need for the singing of songs that have nothing to do with football, which would rule out most songs sung at matches around the world. Indeed, this seems a particularly unfortunate line of argument from an individual who presumably bawls out Flower of Scotland at Murrayfield. What does a 700-year-old battle have to do with rugby?

Ms Cunningham seized on figures showing 231 “football-related” offences involving sectarianism in Scotland last year – all of them, presumably, prosecuted under existing legislation! Forty-seven of these occurred at Celtic Park but only 14, according to police, involved the home support. And there were more than a million attendances in that period.

So where is the sense of perspective? My own view is that bigoted, sectarian attitudes are buried deep in Scottish society. They are directed mainly against minorities, principally – as statistics confirm – the Catholic minority. That is a problem worthy of the Scottish Government’s attention.

It is not too late for the Scottish Government to step back from this legislation and accept it is attacking symptoms rather than root causes. Let the people sing – proudly and legally – rather than pushing them into a corner where they feel obliged to defend that basic right, just as I would have done.

• Brian Wilson was the Celtic centenary historian, and author of A Century With Honour.