No free speech for football fans
Celtic and Rangers supporters should unite in fury against repressive new laws being passed in Scotland.
Oh father why are you so sad
On this bright Easter morn
When Irish men are proud and glad
Of the Land where they were born.
Oh son I see in mem’ries few
Of far-off distant days
When being just a lad like you, I joined the IRA.
These are the opening words of ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’, one of the best-known traditional Irish rebel songs, still sung in a certain kind of Irish pub and often heard in the early hours of the morning at the weddings or wakes of rural and working-class people from certain parts of Ireland. But in a few weeks’ time, singing this song at a football match between Glasgow rivals Celtic and Rangers, or writing the words on a fans’ online message board, could land you an unlimited fine or up to five years in prison thanks to one of the most draconian pieces of legislation of recent years.
According to the Scottish Parliament, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland Bill) ‘aims to tackle the recent issues affecting Scottish football’. If approved, this breathtakingly repressive law will bring in sentences of five years for behaviour by football fans that is deemed to be threatening, abusive or offensive.
In recent years, governments have been condemned by civil-liberties campaigners for rushing laws through parliament with undue haste in the wake of events like 9/11 and the London bombings. But far from taking such criticism into account, the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is proud to announce that these new laws against football fans will be with us before the start of the new football season on 23 July. Stage one of the Bill, where MSPs are asked to approve the legislation in principle, is due to happen this Thursday, and incredibly there will be none of the formal scrutiny or reporting to parliament that usually apply to such new laws.
The Bill introduces two new offences. The first, that of ‘offensive behaviour’, will cover ‘sectarian and other offensive chanting and threatening behaviour related to football which is likely to cause public disorder’ and also ‘expressing or inciting religious, racial or other forms of hatred’. The second new offence, relating to ‘threatening communications’, will ‘strengthen current law covering threats of serious harm and criminalise threats inciting religious hatred’.
The politicians rushing these laws through tell us they are designed to tackle the highly publicised and ugly events that marred last year’s football season – including the sending of parcel bombs and bullets to high-profile Celtic fans, and the death threats and televised attack on Celtic manager Neil Lennon. But what none of us will have the time to ask is why new laws are needed to tackle parcel bombs and death threats when such crimes are already covered by existing laws.
Listening to Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish safety and communications minister, taking the lead on the new laws, it becomes clear that they are much more about criminalising words and behaviour than locking up the guys packing bullets into envelopes. What is deeply shocking is the way that, in interviews, Cunningham casually flits between talking about parcel bombs and offensive chants, as if there were no distinction between the two. Describing both as ‘hate crimes’, Cunningham clearly thinks that sectarian chants end up in violent acts as she casually dispenses with a centuries-old distinction between thoughts and deeds.
The other thing we will not have time to clarify before the Bill becomes law in a fortnight is what words or behaviours actually constitute a hate crime, a threatening communication or an expression of religious hatred. A trawl through the records of previous discussions on the subject at the Scottish Executive does not help, revealing bizarre and contorted debates about what constitutes offensive behaviour at a football game. For some, the sign of the cross could be deemed offensive if carried out ‘ostentatiously in a way designed to alarm upset and provoke others’, and IRA songs or the loyalist songs favoured by some Rangers fans would automatically qualify for punishment. Yet others argue that traditional songs and religious gestures are cultural. The debates would be almost laughable if we were not weeks away from seeing people imprisoned for saying things deemed offensive by the police and politicians.
Strathclyde assistant chief constable Campbell Corrigan, who will be enforcing the new laws, has refused to list the songs police will classify as sectarian, insisting ‘it’s much simpler than that… If an individual or individuals are engaging in singing hate songs likely to provoke a reaction from those they are directed against then we will take action – either at the match or afterwards.’
Campbell’s words suggest that whether you end up in prison or not could depend on the reaction of the person or people who feel offended. Speaking in support of the new laws, Conservative MSP and former head of the Scottish Tories, David McLetchie, spoke for the now popular right of the victim to define what constitutes offence: ‘In the past this has been looked at very narrowly in the context of religious hatred. Speaking as a Hearts supporter I regard songs or chants in support of the IRA as just as offensive as songs sung by Rangers fans that are abusive about Catholicism.’
While Rangers fans will be offended by ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’, Celtic fans are already demanding sanctions against those singing the ‘Famine Song’, which goes: ‘The Famine is over, why don’t you go home?’ This law is a victims’ charter that invites people to take offence and turns fans into spies who spend more time keeping a watchful eye on opposition supporters than shouting for their team. It’s likely to increase tensions at games, not reduce them.
While sensitive fans will now be encouraged to report being offended, there is nothing sensitive about the application of these laws. Even before the ink was dry on the hastily drafted Bill, the same assistant chief constable revealed that the new laws would be enforced by sending officers with cameras into the football stands to film the offensive chants. The police will wear ‘high visibility’ vests and stand filming in plain view. Describing the filming as the police’s very own ‘video nasties’, one commentator championed the new aggressive approach to policing football game: ‘They will film the morons as they spout their sectarian filth… and beat the bigots who stain Scottish football.’ As well as policing the football stands, Corrigan warned that those watching the games in pubs would also be targeted, as well as those causing offence from the apparent safety of their computer keyboards.
Regular readers of spiked will know that these laws are the culmination of a steady and growing campaign of demonisation and criminalisation of Scottish football fans. Over the past few years, fans have increasingly been treated as naughty children issued with a list of house rules governing every aspect of our behaviour: don’t drink in the ground, don’t drink outside the ground, don’t swear, don’t wear that t-shirt, don’t unfurl that banner, don’t say that, and so on.
There is little doubt that Celtic and Rangers fans are discussed with thinly veiled disdain and contempt by the chattering classes at Glasgow’s polite dinner parties. Too often the middle classes get away with describing us as sectarian scum who beat our wives if our team lose to our rivals. But now that prejudice against fans has been turned into a law.
These attacks on sectarian chanting have come at a time when sectarianism is less of a problem in Scottish daily life than it has ever been. No one would describe Old Firm games as a tea party, and sensitive souls should choose another sport if they want to stand quietly in polite company. But enmities fought out at games are increasingly relegated to the terraces, as Catholic fans go home to their Protestant wives or Ranger fans go back to work the next day with their Catholic workmates. Celtic and Rangers fans are not all hate-fuelled parcel-bombers in the making, and ironically games are tamer now than they have ever been – with much of the passion zapped from the game as a result of the panoply of new restrictions and heavy police presence.
These laws have brought the policing of people’s words and thoughts to an unprecedented new level. Nobody who cares about free speech and civil liberties should allow this legislation to pass without protest. Celtic and Rangers fans should overcome our rivalry in a robust defence of our right to offend each other at games. These laws demonise and criminalise us all, and we should unite to tell the politicians to stay out of football and stop treating football fans like scum.
Please sign our petition, wherever you live, and forward it to everyone you know who cares about freedom.
Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school and is a Celtic season-ticket holder. For more about the campaign against these new laws, visit Take a Liberty (Scotland).