The Issue is Not Sectarianism
Fans Against Criminalisation was formed in 2011 in order to oppose the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Scotland (2012) Act and have since battled this legislation whilst simultaneously doing all that we can to support those affected by this act.
Martin Hannan recently penned an article for The National which defends this act and takes swipe at our campaign, specifically stating that those who defend sectarianism ought to grow up. The point that Mr Hannan misses so emphatically (and perhaps deliberately) is that at no point have we sought to defend sectarianism. The act itself and the argument surrounding it has nothing to do with sectarianism either – racist and sectarian offences were already made illegal under previous legislation. One wonders how often we are expected to repeat that most basic statement of fact. The issue that we have is with the discriminatory nature of the act (as it only applies to football fans) and the absurd and dangerous notion of policing offensiveness.
These issues are fairly simple. Is it right, in a modern democracy, to take a single section of the population and make them liable to prosecution and possibly, imprisonment, for potentially offending someone? It is also worth bearing in mind that this ‘victim’ does not actually have to exist, be in attendance or earshot of the ‘offender’ or to ever know about the circumstances of the ‘offence’. If it could be argued that your actions at a football match may theoretically offend someone, somewhere, then you could be looking at a guilty verdict. Keep that in mind the next time you curse a poor refereeing decision or feel like goading the opposition when your team goes a goal up.
To humour Mr Hannan and all others who cannot help but link the societal problem of sectarianism to football, it is worth noting that despite acres of newsprint and more hot air from politicians than could fill the Provan Road gas tanks, there is, in fact, no statistical evidence to suggest that sectarian offences take place mainly in football grounds. The statistics actually say precisely the opposite. In the last two years prior to the Act being introduced the percentage of charges of Breach of the Peace with religious aggravation (the relevant charge prior to the Act coming into force) which took place within a football stadium was 7.4% and 12.93%.
The only thing we seem to agree with Mr Hannan on is that a full a frank review of this controversial and unworkable law is clearly in the public interest. Though Mr Hannan does fail to note that the Government feel that they have fulfilled their obligation to review this Act by publishing the Stirling Report, in spite of the fact that Stirling University themselves has stated this was not intended to be the review.
Whilst the Government have held this review as proof that the Act is working, they have conveniently glossed over the details which very clearly state the opposite. The review reveals that younger fans have been disproportionately targeted, it reveals that court cases on average drag on for far longer than normal trials, it reveals that some sheriffs are worried about the human rights implications of the act and it also reveals that violence at football matches is actually on the rise as a result of police resources being diverted to police offensiveness.
In the whole period of its existence the Act has a conviction rate of 22% – roughly half that of the notoriously low conviction rate in rape cases – and yet still the Scottish Government claims it is working. That is as clear cut evidence as you are likely to find that this Act must be reviewed and ultimately abolished.
Martin Hannan chose to ignore all of these points however when we commented on his previous article which trumpeted the ‘success’ of the Act. Instead he came back with a response using phrases like ‘grow up’ and has a pop at Fans Against Criminalisation in general and Celtic fans in particular. It is also extremely regrettable that we as an organisation were not afforded the right to reply on this issue by The National. Let us make it perfectly clear to Mr Hannan however that we would very much like to live in a ‘grown-up’ democracy, but this act and the attempts to prevent serious debate on it seem to demonstrate that we don’t. And for the avoidance of doubt, we oppose this Act in its entirety and are happy to offer support to fans of any club charged under it, as we have done. This is not about sectarianism, it is not about Celtic and Rangers, it is not about the practice of singing songs about the history of the conflict between Britain and Ireland and it is, most certainly, not about immaturity. It is about an unworkable, unfair, illiberal piece of legislation which attacks young football supporters in an ill-fated and ill-targeted attempt to eradicate sectarianism by a government which neither understands football nor, it would appear, understands sectarianism. No amount of cheerleading on behalf of your favoured party of government or snide comments about our campaign can change that.