Kenny MacAskill: Simply tholing offensive behaviour is no longer acceptable

This weekend sees the football season's first Old Firm fixture. The traditional Rangers and Celtic rivalry has produced some marvellous matches through the years; natural talent heightened by a passionate support has enthralled. However, it's also been responsible for more than its fair share of troubles.

Picture: SNS
Picture: SNS

That culminated several years ago when tension rose and incidents abounded. The animus between sections of the support wasn’t simply restricted to the ground but spilled out elsewhere. Moreover, trouble wasn’t just occurring in pubs and clubs but death threats were being made to prominent individuals and bullets were being sent in the post.

Of course, the fixture had always produced its fair share of bile, with so-called “banter” spewed out by rival supporters. Far from benign, it was as pernicious in religious terms as epitaphs and slurs had been on race in past decades. Scotland needed to put the baggage of sectarianism behind it. Likewise, veneration of Northern Irish paramilitaries was hurtful for many and a history that modern Ireland was seeking to move on from.

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However, what was happening was far more than the simple upsurge of alcohol-fuelled disorder that can follow any high-profile 
fixture. Domestic abuse sadly 
rockets after many Scotland games as well as those involving the big Glasgow clubs. But this was far more insidious than the perennial “whataboutery” that scars Scottish football, that euphemism relating to the complaints that it’s always the other side to blame, or that they started it.

Action needed to be taken and it was. It was called for not just by police and prosecutors but by the general public, who were sick and tired of the venom and bile that can surround football, whether in the stadium or on the way to it. It was being inflicted not just on those who paid for admission or watched on the screen, but also on those folk who just wanted to go about their ordinary business without hatred and bigotry being foisted on them. It was also being inflicted not just verbally, but electronically.

As a result, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was brought in not just to deal with the hatred generated verbally but also through modern electronic communications sent. The world in which we live has changed as much as the modern game itself, with email and social media now often being the conduit for hate.

The Act has been vehemently opposed by many, though opinion surveys have indicated significant public support for it. Labour now seek to use the SNP’s absence of a majority in Holyrood to overturn the legislation. Many may wonder why this is their priority, given outstanding areas of social need and real or perceived failings by the administration. But they are entitled to their views and are supported by many commentators and hard-core fans.

Of course, any new legislation, especially as controversial as this, will face challenges, compounded when brought in quickly. However, much of the criticism is either false or has been addressed whether by those enforcing it or deciding upon it.

The first assertion made was that the law was unnecessary because exising provisions were sufficient. That just wasn’t the case, as prosecutors and police explained. Previous legislation left a hiatus when the overwhelming majority of the crowd were participating. There was a gap where behaviour was offensive but there were few to be offended. Their absence doesn’t make it right, and so the law was needed.

It was also suggested that the courts were against the Act and sheriffs critical of it. For sure, a few who are well known for their outspokenness expressed their views, but the Appeal Court has clarified the legal interpretation and brought them into line.

It was also suggested that the Act was criminalising a generation of young working class men. That ignored the cost of football which in many ways is no longer the people’s game when it comes to a ticket or the general costs of going to a match. Moreover, the numbers arrested have been far fewer than the wholesale round-up predicted. And now the lack of numbers prosecuted is cited as a reason to apparently dispense with it. Many of those most vocal in opposition to the Act claim it’s their culture or history. That’s highly debatable but there’s still no reason to foist it on others. Far from being in the vanguard of human rights, they’re simply perpetuating bigotry and prejudice.

Moreover, the law hasn’t simply been targeted at one or even two clubs, but across the league. Other teams’ supporters whose behaviour has been similarly unacceptable have also faced the consequences.

The law has worked, as both police and anecdotal evidence confirm that behaviour at and on the way to a game has improved. That can only be a good thing as football has not been without its recent controversies from pitch invasions to offensive singing requiring to be toned down on TV.

We’ll see what this season brings in parliament and on the pitch. But politicians and football itself should beware of what they wish for. There’s no appetite for a return to the “glory days” of offensive chanting. The Old Firm fixture’s absence for several years has lowered the public’s tolerance of it. Abandoning the legislation in its entirety threatens aspects such as addressing intimidation that can be committed electronically and through social media.

Moreover, alternative sanctions will need to be invoked, as simply tholing offensive behaviour is no longer acceptable. The likely result would be strict liability, as applies in Europe. That would see the club punished for misbehaviour that occurs. In the absence of powers to tackle individuals, then wider action will be required. If offensive behaviour continues to blight before and after fixtures, people may also begin to question why, in straitened times, policing costs outside the stadium fall to the public purse.

So, let’s see what Saturday brings and then what Parliament does, but the grass might not be any greener for the beautiful game even on a different pitch.