Will Scotland's controversial football act be scrapped?

Scottish Parliamentary committee hearings, with all due respect to their importance and participants, aren't always exciting affairs.

James Kelly MSP appears before the Justice Committee to give evidence on his members bill the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Repeal) (Scotland) Bill. 12 December 2017. Pic - Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
James Kelly MSP appears before the Justice Committee to give evidence on his members bill the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Repeal) (Scotland) Bill. 12 December 2017. Pic - Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

Yesterday proved a notable exception, as the Justice Committee considered a private member’s bill from Labour MSP James Kelly that would repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which was enacted by the SNP in 2012.

The Act was first enacted in 2012 with the aim of curtailing sectarian behaviour, including singing, and other disruptive behaviour by football fans after the infamous Old Firm ‘shame game’ of 2011.

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Sparks flew as MSPs from that party defended the controversial bill, with particular anger over George Adam’s suggestion that the Act was borne out because of bomb and bullet threats to then-Celtic manager Neil Lennon.

The Act

Mr Kelly, who insisted that he preferred ‘football songs’ being sung to political ones, was pressed on what he considered a football song, to the annoyance of convenor Margaret Mitchell.

So is the controversial bill set for relegation? We look at the potential path for repeal.

Parliamentary arithmetic

In parliamentary terms, there should be little debate on whether one of the most controversial laws ever enacted in Scotland is set to be repealed.

All four of the other parties represented in the Scottish Parliament have made their position clear on the bill.

When it was enacted, the SNP used their majority to ensure that it passed in the face of opposition, but since 2016 they are once again governing as a minority administration.

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Even the Greens, who have shown a willingness to work with the SNP on matters of the Budget and the constitution, want the bill repealed ‘as quickly as possible’.

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A previous vote on the principle of James Kelly’s bill saw the SNP subjected to a symbolic defeat.

Through another snap general election, a consultation, and the penning of Mr Kelly’s bill, nothing has changed at Holyrood that indicates the bill will survive.

The fightback

That is not to say, as shown at yesterday’s meeting, that the SNP aren’t willing to let the bill die without a fight.

Nicola Sturgeon’s party are planning an attempt to make public opinion swing in favour of the bill to the point that Mr Kelly rethinks his repeal plan.

The party pointed this week to a YouGov poll in 2015 that indicated that 80% of Scots support the principle of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

In labelling Mr Kelly’s plan irresponsible, they cited evidence from organisations opposed to repealing the bill, including Stonewall Scotland and the Scottish Council for Jewish Communities.

Accusing James Kelly of having an ‘obsession with undermining the fight against sectarianism’, the SNP is clearly not backing down from a fight that is becoming increasingly bitter and personal.

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Shooting the messenger

That is an approach that Mr Kelly himself could do with imitating, pushing supporters to the forefront as he attempts to win support for the bill.

If Mr Kelly remains the public face of the repeal effort, he will need to avoid slip-ups, and tackle the bill with a broad focus, not with reference to individual teams or groups of supporters, as such an approach carries risks.

At the committee, for example, Mr Kelly cited a ‘League One play-off match’ between St Johnstone and Partick Thistle, where fans performing a conga line apparently fell foul of the Offensive Behaviour Act.

The problem with that anecdote – neither St Johnstone nor Partick Thistle have been in League One, or indeed any play-off game, since the bill was enacted.

Slip-ups like this may seem inconsequential (it was later clarified that it referred to a first division match between Falkirk and Thistle), but with work to do on winning over public support, Mr Kelly can afford few more like it, given the SNP have shown they are willing to seize on his comments.

Whatever the outcome of the political arguments, the future for the Act does not seem rosy.

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Mr Kelly’s bill, which repeals an Act only brought in five years ago, may make slow progress through the Scottish Parliament.

The SNP, it is expected, will eventually signal a willingness to significantly alter the legislation, stopping short of a full repeal.

With opposition parties sensing a victory over the now-minority government, football fans could soon find themselves without a specific law governing their behaviour.