Michael Kelly: Cry foul over sectarianism law

Armed Forces members take to the field at Ibrox. Picture: SNS
Armed Forces members take to the field at Ibrox. Picture: SNS
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Lack of action over the armed forces’ behaviour at Ibrox last week again highlights the flaws in legislation to tackle sectarianism, writes Michael Kelly

Strange and disturbing events unfolded at Ibrox last Saturday. It was not the home side’s overwhelming 8- 0 victory over Stenhousemuir that attracted attention. Rather it was the interaction between armed forces personnel and Rangers fans that was the focus of the ipads and smart phones of social media commentators. Over the following 48 hours, videos and photographs of soldiers, sailors and airmen demonstrating with the crowd filled YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Oddly, that’s where the coverage ended. Images which normally would have been meat and drink to the tabloids and TV news were absent from both. Apart from reports in a number of heavyweight papers, matters went largely unreported until popular outcry led to both the police and the army announcing that inquiries would be undertaken to establish what had transpired.

What did happen was fairly clear on YouTube. The armed forces – mainly soldiers – marched into the stadium in a dignified manner behind a pipe band. Then for some reason, instead of marching off again they were allowed to disperse and wander about on the pitch. Most of what happened thereafter was unexceptional. They walked about taking photos of each other and posed with fans. However, a large group of them then congregated at one end of the ground facing supporters singing what the Scottish government would class as criminally sectarian songs. The soldiers jumped up and down in time to the rhythm, waved their arms about and clapped, thereby encouraging the crowd to reprise their chants. There was no definitive evidence that they joined in the singing.

There is much to be said in support of institutions like Rangers hosting days to recognise the efforts made by the armed forces in defence of this country. Soldiers are generally popular, the public enjoys showing its support for them and the closer links between the army and the public are the better for society generally. However, this event was a public relations disaster.

Unwittingly or not, the army got caught up in events that were clearly both sectarian and political. Given the continued uncertainty in Northern Ireland, one can see how these events will be exploited by disaffected republicans. If British soldiers ever have to go active again in the province, their performance last Saturday will be recalled as evidence of the partiality of the army. The soldiers’ behaviour was so inappropriate for the senior brass present to take action there and then, rather than later to announce an investigation.

The other question is: where were the police? In all the coverage there is no evidence of their presence. Normally the police patrol the perimeter of the pitch. None was to be seen. Given the enthusiasm with which the police elsewhere have tried to enforce the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, their no-show demands an inquiry.

It is another example of how this bad act is not being properly enforced. There have been numerous complaints by fans as to police tactics. Rangers fans were walked to and from Annan’s football ground where there had been no evidence of misbehaviour on the way to the town. A similar situation arose when Rangers visited Forres. Motherwell fans complain bitterly about rough policing when their team visited St Mirren Park. Celtic supporters associations are still angry about the way in which the police dealt with an unauthorised march in Glasgow’s Gallowgate. In relation to this, a group of MSPs held a meeting with Scotland’s chief constable at which the police refused to recognise the term “kettling”, insisting that this unpopular method of containment be referred to as “box-cordoning”.

Despite this pedantic insistence, the police were unable to confirm how long this practice had been in existence, stating only that it has been used, in one police officer’s words, “for as long as I can remember”.

In fact, the whole issue of box-cordoning is shrouded in mystery. Police were unwilling to disclose to the politicians just how and when it is seen as a legitimate tactic. Demonstrators are therefore unable to avoid behaviour that might lead to their being forcibly detained on the streets for long periods of time. Under a Freedom of Information disclosure the police admitted “the use of containment is not recorded in any corporate manner”. So accurate figures as to how often it is used are not available.

Even more significantly, the same Freedom of Information response indicates that there is nothing to suggest that either the Cabinet secretary for justice (Kenny MacAskill) or the minister for community safety and legal affairs (Roseanna Cunningham) have discussed box-cordoning with the police. Given the high and adverse profile that containment action has attracted, and given the weight that the Scottish Government has thrown behind the enforcement of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, this is a peculiar omission which should be rectified forthwith.

This act was ill-conceived in the wake of one minor incident at one football match. It is undemocratic and anti-civil rights. A number of songs sung at football matches are offensive. But in a democracy people have the right to be offensive, especially where part of the offence given is political in nature. It is for this and for other failings in this badly drafted legislation that the Scottish courts are increasingly unwilling to find fans guilty under its terms. Very few at Ibrox last weekend would have been offended by the fans’ behaviour. Does that exempt it from the act? Does its subsequent broadcast which offended many people bring it back with the scope of the act even although the parties offended against were not at the match? No one has given definitive answers to questions like these.

All civilised citizens want to see an end to sectarian hatred. The best work being done to transform our society is being carried out by voluntary organisations – organisations that have seen their public funding cut. The way not to change attitudes is through an undemocratic and unworkable act which discriminates against a particular section of society. The government should take this opportunity to revisit the legislation urgently with a view to its repeal.