Celtic to challenge Holyrood over sectarian laws

CELTIC Football Club have called on the Scottish Government to bring forward a review of its anti-sectarian football legislation, claiming it has been “unhelpful and counter-productive”.
Celtic fans celebrate at their home ground. Picture: Jane BarlowCeltic fans celebrate at their home ground. Picture: Jane Barlow
Celtic fans celebrate at their home ground. Picture: Jane Barlow

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act was introduced in January 2012 with the promise of a review after it had been in force for two full football seasons and a report to the parliament a year later.

But last night Celtic FC insisted the legislation had already been shown to be flawed and claimed there was sufficient evidence of the act’s “unhelpfulness and negative impacts” to justify an immediate review “with action to follow”.

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Their demands came as the Scottish Government minister for community safety, Roseanna Cunningham, rejected any early review of the laws, intended to stamp out religious sectarian abuse at football matches.

In a hard-hitting statement released last night, Celtic said it had “all along opposed this legislation which has been used to create a general presumption that different laws should apply to football supporters as distinct from society as a whole”.

The legislation was pushed through after an an ill-tempered Old Firm match at Celtic Park, that saw three Rangers players sent off and 13 yellow cards issued. There were 34 arrests inside the stadium, 16 of which were for alleged offences of a sectarian nature.

At the same time, the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) – the police officers’ union – called for a ban on Old Firm games being held in Glasgow, saying they led to too much violence.

The resulting law gives police and prosecutors new powers in relation to sectarian songs and abuse during and around football matches, as well as threats posted on the internet or through the mail.

Those found guilty face a range of penalties up to maximum five years in prison and an unlimited fine.

However, the legislation has been extremely unpopular with football fans and clubs, with many saying police already had enough powers to deal with sectarianism and claiming the act effectively criminalises supporters.

In a statement, Celtic said the act had engendered a “sense of discrimination across Scottish football” and “brought the law into disrepute” when tested in the criminal courts.

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The club added: “It has also acted as a barrier to our own efforts to encourage supporters to behave in a way which is consistent with the club’s proud history and reputation.

“We believe the Scottish Government should review, as a matter of urgency, the way in which this unhelpful and counter-productive act is operating.”

Celtic went on to say that while it had “valued a positive relationship with the police”, the club was concerned that they were in the position of “enforcing legislation which is provocative and does not command widespread respect”.

Celtic claimed the Scottish Government had already conceded the need for a review of the legislation, and on the evidence available from sheriffs dealing with cases arising from the legislation, they could “see no need for delay” of this.

The statement concluded: “It would be helpful if the new season could kick off in August with these issues resolved so that everyone could concentrate on promoting the best possible environment for Scottish football and marginalising unwelcome influences which attach themselves to it.”

Ms Cunningham yesterday told MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee: “We are now a good two years down the line from this being implemented and we’re coming close to the end of that two-year review period the act provided for.”

An advisory group set up by the Scottish Government reported in December that sectarianism remains a significant force.