Scott Macnab: Sectarian laws were doomed to fail

Celtic's Green Brigade have been prominent among targets of police action following the passing of OPBFA. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Celtic's Green Brigade have been prominent among targets of police action following the passing of OPBFA. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The “headline grabbing” approach to dealing with an entrenched problem in football has not worked, says Scott Macnab

The return of the Old Firm derby this season with Rangers ending their four-year exile in the lower reaches of Scottish football has perhaps marked the clearest failings of the Scottish Government’s widely-criticised anti-sectarian laws. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act (OBFA) was supposed to bring an end to the most public aspects of Scotland’s “national shame” particularly the sectarian singing which has been such an embarrassing staple of this fixture throughout the decades. But the same old hate-filled chants have been all too audible, not just at this fixture, but other games this season.

The public display of offensive banners and effigies at the recent Celtic v Rangers league game also appear to show that five years of this legislation haven’t done much to address the issues is sought to tackle. The controversy surrounding these laws stretch back before they were even enacted, as they suffered a troubled legislative process at the Scottish Parliament. Roseanna Cunningham, the justice minister responsible for them, provoked a minor storm at this time, claiming it could be a crime to sing the national anthem under the proposals.

“It depends on the circumstances,” she told MSPs scrutinising the legislation.

For many growing up with the furniture of these games in the west of Scotland, it is blatantly obvious which are the offensive songs which are widely accepted as part of of Old Firm games. Why not spell things out clearly to fans and decree which songs are banned inside grounds? But ministers shied away from issuing any list of banned songs, insisting it would always be down to the specific situation at the time. Football fans could even be jailed for making the sign of the cross or having an offensive tattoo.

Even at that stage, there was growing concerns of confusion for police and prosecutors and the backlash amongst the opposition at Holyrood was gathering pace. The impetus to act came from the fall-out of an infamous Old Firm encounter in 2011 which saw rival managers Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon clash on the touchline. Lennon was later targeted with live bullets and parcel bombs in the post. The SNP had also been stung by claims that it had taken its “eye off the ball” in tackling sectarianism after Alex Salmond’s predecessor Jack McConnell had made it a key priority of the last Labour regime. And McConnell was among the most scathing critics of the SNP’s approach, branding OBFA a “headline grabbing initiative” rather than the long-term approach which was needed to tackle such an entrenched problem.

The veil was really lifted on the paralysis of ministers, and wider civic Scotland, to face the real root causes of the country’s sectarian problems with the mauling which Tory MSP John Lamont suffered as the laws were passed. He suggested that the effective segregation of children’s schooling in Scotland had to be looked at. Recalling his own experiences growing up in Ayrshire, no doubt shared by thousands of Scots, of tensions between his own protestant - or non-denominational - school and the local catholic school, he insisted this effectively amounted to “the state-sponsored conditioning of these sectarian attitudes”.

Harsh language, but the point was surely worth consideration in the wider debate. Instead it prompted a furious backlash, with Bishop of Motherwell Joe Devine branding the comments “offensive and untenable” while Ms Cunningham herself labelled the claims “a diatribe against Scottish education”.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that concerns of a more sinister edge to these new laws have been allowed to gather pace in recent years. The sociologist Stuart Waiton has even characterised the laws as a vehicle for the prejudice and hatred among Scotland’s establishment elite towards the “great unwashed” in the stands of the country’s football stadiums to be exercised. His book on the subject entitled “Snobs Law: Criminalising Football fans In An Age of Intolerance” ridicules the increasingly thin-skinned approach of modern Scotland to any perceived “offence.” For many this is the natural consequence of basic freedom of speech. Instead, under Holyrood’s auspices, we see an increasingly hardline approach from our authorities, with demands that often “stupid, infantile chanting or blogging” be silenced immediately, with up to five years in jail facing transgressors under these laws.

Fans have certainly complained of a more hardline approach from Police Scotland since OBFA came into effect. Three years ago Celtic’s green brigade, a politically-active section of the Parkhead club’s support, attempted a peaceful march in objection to bans being imposed by the club. It was met with a surprisingly hardline approach from police. Up to 200 officers surrounded the group in a cordon, as fans got a taste of “kettling” tactics more commonly used in direct action political protests. The increasing sight of officers at games standing directly in front of fans, filming them, has done nothing to defuse tensions or alleviate the situation.

Whatever the merit in the intentions of these laws, it has been increasingly clear for some time now that its days were numbered. The clock was ticking from the moment Dundee Sheriff Richard Davidson branded them “horribly badly drafted” and even SNP backbenchers have recently been admitting their shortcomings.

The Scottish Government has lost the support of fans, clubs and the wider public as the Labour MSP James Kelly revealed this week. His bill at Holyrood will almost certainly mark the repeal of OPBFA with all the opposition parties poised to unite and out-vote the SNP on this issue. Of course, they never had the support of any other Holyrood parties, but the SNP used its majority to push the laws through despite concerns. That was five years ago. As the saying goes: act in haste, repent at leisure.