Crackdown on sectarian chants to be law by spring

The traditional rivalry between Celtic and Rangers fans came to a head last season. Picture: Robert Perry/TSPL
The traditional rivalry between Celtic and Rangers fans came to a head last season. Picture: Robert Perry/TSPL
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SCOTTISH football fans could be arrested for singing “offensive or sectarian” songs at football games within weeks, after a new hardline package of measures was passed by MSPs at Holyrood yesterday.

The tough new legislation has led to suggestions that fans could face prosecution for singing the national anthem or crossing themselves. It was introduced in the aftermath of the “shame game” between Rangers and Celtic last season and the parcel bombs sent through the post to high-profile Celtic supporters.

Last night the SNP government was accused of using its substantial majority to “steamroller” through the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication Scotland Bill, despite widespread concerns from opposition parties and bodies outside Holyrood.

But the measures are backed by the police and prosecution chiefs, who argue that they are needed to address a gap in the law.

The bill is now expected to complete its third stage reading by parliament in mid-December and should become law by mid-January.

Ministers rejected a series of opposition amendments aimed at refining the laws yesterday.

Patrick Harvie, the leader of the Green Party, claimed the SNP has forced the measures through parliament, ignoring a growing chorus of objections. This prompted him to claim that the measures had been “steam- rollered” through parliament.

“I’m still not convinced that this bill can be fixed – its flaws are too deep,” Mr Harvie said yesterday.

“Ministers are stubbornly determined to force it through in the teeth of consistent and reasoned opposition from all quarters, inside and outside parliament,” he said yesterday.

MSPs agreed to insert a new freedom of expression clause into the new laws to allay wider concerns as the bill passed its second parliamentary stage yesterday.

It has a final hurdle to pass at Holyrood, which is expected to be a formality.

The new crackdown has been mired in controversy, largely generated by confusion surrounding the nature of the behaviour that could now become illegal.

First Minister Alex Salmond has already delayed its implementation in an effort to find a broad consensus, but this is now in tatters.

Earlier, community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham appeared to tell MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee that fans who cross themselves or sing the national anthem could face arrest if they were behaving in a way that could be threatening or offensive or incite public disorder.

Labour has refused to lodge any amendments. Party justice spokesman James Kelly yesterday called for the legislation to be ditched.

He said: “As it currently stands, we do not believe it is fit for purpose and parliament should not be asked to pass bad law.

“We want the SNP to withdraw this bill and take more time to discuss the problems of sectarian behaviour with all interested parties, including the churches, football organisations and other groups.”

The freedom of expression clause agreed yesterday covers communications, such as messages sent over the internet, which may contain insults or abuse of religious beliefs. But it does not cover online messages which are threatening or likely to cause public disorder.

Neither does it apply to sectarian or threatening behaviour at and around football matches.

During an earlier discussion of the legislation, Ms Cunningham said: “Banter and passionate support for football teams is the lifeblood of football. Sectarianism and other expressions of hate are not.

“They poison football and all they touch and this government is taking decisive action to tackle it, giving the police and prosecutors the extra tools they need by filling clear gaps in the current law, as outlined by the Lord Advocate.

“The well-behaved majority of all fans – who are the vast majority – have nothing to fear from a bill which will make Scottish football and society better.”

The SNP proposes two new offences through the bill.

The first offence targets sectarian and threatening behaviour at and around football matches which is deemed likely to cause public disorder.

The second offence relates to threats or serious harm which are intended to stir up religious hatred on the internet or other communications.

Those convicted under the legislation could spend up to five years in prison and be banned for life from football grounds.

The measures were introduced in the aftermath of the so-called “shame game” at Parkhead in March, which saw Rangers’ assistant manager Ally McCoist – now the club manager – and and Celtic boss Neil Lennon square up on the touchline after the match.

Three Rangers players were also sent off in the match, which resulted in a summit hosted by Alex Salmond at St Andrew’s House, bringing together football and prosecution authorities to debate ways to tackle the issue.

The following month, parcel bombs were sent to Lennon and two high-profile fans of the Parkhead club, the advocate Paul McBride and former Holyrood presiding officer Trish Godman.

Another change made by the committee yesterday widens part of the bill to include people not necessarily travelling to a football match.

Ministers are to consider an amendment surrounding the definition of “offensive behaviour” to include expressions of support for organisations listed in the Terrorism Act.

Lib Dem justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes tried to oppose a government amendment which allows Parliament to consider changing the bill in future. She said it gave ministers too much power, despite assurances from Ms Cunningham that no changes would be made without consultation.

Ms McInnes later said: “This is simply more evidence of the act-now-think-later approach that the government have taken in bulldozing this bill through parliament.”