Fabrice Muamba, jail and racist tweets

When does being offensive become an offence?

Liam Stacey, who wrote racist tweets following the collapse of Fabrice Muamba, is a vile idiot. But should he have gone to jail for what he wrote?

My first inclination is to think that regardless of the despicable things he said in the wake of the footballer's near-fatal collapse during a Bolton-Spurs game the other week, this man should not be put in jail for what he has written. To jail people for expressing racist views is to make martyrs of these people, to legitimise their sense of entitlement and victimhood, to reinforce the idea that we're living in a PC world where free speech has been outlawed in favour of politically correct speech.

I certainly don't wants to live in a country in which people aren't allowed to be offensive, appalling and even racists if they want to be. But where does conflict and debate between passionate and partisan football fans - I fear I must at this point introduce the word "banter", which is more often than not used to excuse despicable behaviour as being somehow a blokey get-out-of-jail-free card -- become a crime? When does being offensive become an offence?

There's a sense in which "banter" of a fairly unpleasant nature is and always has been part of football. Vile chants about Hillsborough and Munich still carry on, gloating about death and misery. Manchester United's Korean star Park-Ji Sung gets told he eats dogs; Liverpool supporters get told they eat dead rats. The hate levels rise. When players collapse, the cry of "Let him die!" goes out - though maybe not so much after the events at White Hart Lane.

Which isn't to say football fans are a horrible bunch, because there's a whole world of funny terrace chants, of genuine sporting rivalry and friendly animosity. Up and down the country every weekend, fans of opposing teams sit and have a drink together and tell each other to "have a good match" when they part to take their seats in opposite ends of the ground.

But in some cases, the rivalry spills over into violence, threats and crime. Where do you draw the line? Sometimes, the justice system gets involved and has to decide what's "banter" and what has strayed into something darker. There's now legislation to clamp down on sectarian chanting and abuse in Scotland, with the introduction of the "Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill", with a particular focus on football.

This isn't the first case in recent times of a tweeter landing in trouble for what they have written on the social networking site -- Sunderland fan Peter Copeland was recently given a community order after making racist tweets about Demba Ba and the number of black players in the Newcastle United side during some "banter" with a fellow fan.

What, then, was different about Stacey's tweets? In my opinion there are some differences that take it beyond simple trash-talking. The problem with talking about this subject is that to repeat what Stacey wrote is to repeat some truly awful things -- and most deemed by the judge, too awful to repeat.

His original tweet carried an "#haha" hashtag when the player had collapsed. He followed this up with a number of insults aimed at people who'd taken offence to that comment, widely retweeted by those who were shocked.

I suppose one test with these things is whether they would be offences if you walked up to someone in a pub and said them. While the "Fuck Muamba" tweet is disgusting, it's not targeted hate at one person to hurt them, whereas I think the others are, and have a racial element which only makes it worse. Are they threatening and hurtful words and behaviour? Do they incite racial hatred, more importantly? Stacey admitted the offence with which he was charged.

Much as I don't want to live in a world in which people's tweets are censored and scrutinised, we do live in a world in which bright, articulate footballers like Micah Richards feel forced to quit Twitter after being on the receiving end of a slew of racist tweets.

So what is to be done about it? Football has a long way to go before it can say it really has kicked out racism, and there really is a line between what's acceptable as a slanging match, or abuse, and out-and-out threats and incitement.

Sometimes, that line does get crossed, and Stacey has 56 days of his life to reflect on that.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser