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31 January 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:39pm

The SNP wanted to clamp down on sectarianism – it penalised football fans instead

The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is well intentioned, but sets a worrying precedent. 

By Ged Killen

Scotland has a long and complicated relationship with sectarianism. 

I never doubt the sincerity of politicians in all parties who seek to tackle the issue. But it is a bold, or arrogant, government that believes it alone has the answer. 

Since devolution, there have been various cross-party attempts to tackle sectarianism. During the 2010-11 football season, there were a spate of sectarian incidents, such as when parcel bombs were sent to the Celtic manager and high-profile fans. Tensions were running high in Scotland’s Old Firm, particularly between the management of Celtic and Rangers football clubs, who really ought to have known better. 

Alex Salmond, then first minister of a Scottish National Party majority government, decided to act. But in pushing through the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, he ignored legitimate concerns raised by opposition parties and people outside of politics. A kneejerk reaction led to poorly-drafted legislation that has arguably caused more harm than good. 

When the country’s political leaders are bitterly divided by controversial legislation, there can be little chance that same legislation will successfully heal bitter divisions in our communities. If we are to have any hope of tackling division and intolerance, what we need most of all is unity. 

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It is on this front that The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has failed miserably on so many levels.

The Act centres around the context in which sectarian behaviour takes place, rather than sectarian behaviour itself. Someone can be charged under the this Act if they are at a football match, on their way to a football match, or watching it on television in a local pub. But the same person engaging in the same behaviour couldn’t be charged under the Act if they were just walking down the street (and not heading to a football match) or if the sport being shown on the TV in the pub was rugby instead. 

It is a deeply illiberal piece of legislation that creates worrying precedents. It criminalises offensiveness, specifically “other behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive”. This means police officers are required to be no longer neutral law enforcement “referees”, but players themselves having to use their own judgement about whether someone is likely to be offended by an action, even if there is no one present to be offended. Predominately young, working-class men find themselves stopped by the police on their way to football matches minding their own business. Their details are then recorded because they may be useful another day. And where this has led to a letter through the door accusing a fan of singing a song at some football match months previously, most often the charge is thrown out because it has been based on weak or inaccurate evidence, or because the justice system has no confidence in the legislation. 

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All of this has undermined confidence in the rule of law. It has created needless tension between fan groups and the police, when what we should be aiming to do is build a relationship of trust between them. Even in cases where someone has been singing a sectarian song, we must ask ourselves whether criminalising them is the best way of tackling that behaviour. You are unlikely ever to find a football fan in a stadium singing a song on their own. So, presumably, the aim is either that every person singing in the stadium can be successfully prosecuted, or that a few individuals targeted by the police will somehow set an example to the others by osmosis.

Many of these people will never have been in trouble with the police before. Some of them will have been brought up in communities where sectarianism is as deeply ingrained as the socio-economic inequalities. What they need is a guiding hand, not to be smacked down by the state.

Sectarianism is an issue we must all take responsibility for. Comforting ourselves that we are doing something about it by singling out one group of people to shoulder the blame is an abdication of the duty we owe to each other, and the government owes to us. “Othering” football fans neatly wraps up a complicated issue into something that takes place during the 90 minutes of a football match. 

A few months ago, I was woken in the middle of the night by a drunk man walking down my street singing a sectarian song at the top of his voice. 

He wasn’t in a football stadium or watching a football match, so he could not have been charged under the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. Crucially, though, the police wouldn’t need to try it. They have the powers they need already: the man could have been charged under breach of the peace laws instead. 

We won’t win the battle against sectarianism by compartmentalising those who engage in it or by pitting one group of people against another or by politicians ignoring the legitimate concerns of their opponents. 

We need a unified approach, a serious attempt to tackle the root cause through education and community action with the aim of making sectarianism unacceptable, stopping sectarian behaviour before police action is required.

Ged Killen is the Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West.