Football fans lead fight for freedom of speech

It is right that politicians should tackle sectarianism in society, writes MICHAEL KELLY. But not with anti-democratic legislation


Who would have thought that the sure-footed Alex Salmond would have been tripped up by football fans? Yet it looks like supporters from both sides of the Old Firm have decided to mount a sustained campaign against his proposed anti-sectarian legislation and so present the first grass-roots challenge to his overriding authority.

When, last season, the Chief Constable of Strathclyde called for political action to be taken following some minor disturbances on and off the field at a Rangers versus Celtic game, the First Minister could not resist jumping on the bandwagon as it rolled into Edinburgh. It seemed a natural vote winner. The behaviour of many fans at these games is at the very least boorish. At its worst it exhibits a hatred and a bile that is not healthy in any individual or society. Viewed in the sanitised corridors of power in our douce capital, it seemed that proposing legislation to deal with these nasty, brutish hordes would attract nothing but praise.

This was the conventional wisdom among all the political parties. Johann Lamont, currently a contender for Labour leadership, presented a devastating critique of the weaknesses of the bill when it came to the floor of Holyrood. But, so afraid was she of finding her party on the wrong side of the argument that she refused to set Labour against the principle of the legislation. MSPs from all sides agreed, feeling that to oppose the bill would be to be seen as condoning sectarianism. Whether this view was reinforced by the fact that Labour was mesmerised by Salmond’s ability to divine precisely the public mood on a whole series of issues, the fact remains that it was only when outside bodies, including the two football clubs most concerned, voiced concrete objections that the bill was withdrawn to allow further consultation to take place.

Opponents of the bill can fairly argue that much of the chanting at football matches is political in nature. And that is the fundamental objection to this law. It infringes freedom of speech. However unpleasant it is to hear support expressed for organisations that have been responsible for atrocities, can a democracy ban articulation of that point of view?

This bill is thoroughly anti-democratic. It is sinister. There have already been hints that singing the National Anthem may not be banned. Bu what about chanting the anthem of a partner in the European Union? Like, picking one at random, Ireland, part of the arc of prosperity that we were to join before the banking crisis exposed this as a farce. The government has refused to list the songs that may not be sung, the words that may not be used, the images that may not appear on banners. It appears the courts will be asked to rely on intent. Political thought will be monitored. And if intent to provoke is the criterion then the National Anthem will be banned because that is precisely why it is sung. This is a mess.

There is no doubt that there is a problem of sectarianism in this country. And it is right that politicians should address it. But this law is not the way. It is unenforceable. Any convictions taken on appeal to Europe will be lost on human rights grounds. But most importantly it is redundant. Laws already exist to tackle the problem – from breach of the peace upwards. Only this week we have seen cases of an arrest for an assault on a Celtic player, of a conviction for posting sectarian comments on Facebook, and of three Rangers fans being arrested for alleged sectarian offences at East End Park. What more proof does the government need that the current law is adequate? On the other hand, the not proven verdict in favour of the fan who admitted attacking Neil Lennon at Tynecastle shows how difficult convictions become when sectarianism has to be proved.

Sectarianism must be tackled in much more subtle ways than this crude law. It requires long-term changes in our culture brought about mainly through education. And this must bring the question of Catholic schools on to the agenda, though this is an issue that the First Minister will not even begin to address.

He must already be sorry he ever got involved in its sporting equivalent. Celtic supporters on Saturday mounted a coherent protest against restrictions on their expressing their culture and heritage. Rangers supporters followed. Many of their fears are exaggerated, particularly the growing concern propagated among Celtic supporters that no Catholic can get a fair trial in Scotland. But the resentment shown against the government must worry the SNP who have spent decades wooing the Catholic Church.

Alex Salmond is too smart a politician to dismiss these protests as unimportant or irrelevant to his precious independence referendum. Given the pragmatic nature of his general approach it would seem a safe bet that he will now find some way of abandoning this new law with as little loss of face as possible. For Labour it is the first opportunity to attack the SNP on an issue that will get widespread attention. There are plenty of principled grounds on which a parliamentary assault can be mounted. Equally clearly, there are political gains to be made which could show themselves in next May’s local elections. This is a chance for the contenders for the Labour leadership to show their political nous.

But, more broadly, it should also give all of the opposition parties hope. The First Minster is not invincible. There are chinks in his armour. There are vast swathes of SNP policy that do not stand up to the scrutiny to which the despised fans of the Old Firm have subjected this law. There is the equivocation between the euro and the English pound as the preferred unit of currency for an independent Scotland.

There is the anti-business budget. There is the employment gap when the British defence forces leave to guard what is left of the United Kingdom. But the immediate question is who is going to take the first shot at this open goal?

Michael Kelly CBE is a former Lord Provost of Glasgow and Rector of Glasgow University. He is a newspaper columnist and a PR consultant. This article was originally publishes in The Scotsman.

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19 thoughts on “Football fans lead fight for freedom of speech

  1. This highlights the difficulties that Labour finds itself with its pathological opposition to any and all SNP proposals.

    Labour rejects legislation to tackle sectariansim.

    Labour rejects the teaching of Scottish Studies being taught in schools that would address the cultural problem of sectarianism in class.

    In effect Labour are arguing that this problem should not be addressed by civic society as a whole but by the usual suspects who have failed miserably in the past.

    That is why Labour finds itself on the wrong side of the arguement.

  2. Mac the Cyber Nat ignores the real issues to indulge in a bit of Labour baiting.

    So Mike – how about answering some questions:

    God Save the Queen and Amhran na bhFiann – why would one be automatically exempted and the other not?

    Boys of the Old Brigade – is that a sectarian song? Fields of Athenry?

    Incidentally, I would not be quiote so forgiving as Michael Kelly of Celts who sing songs glorifying the IRA, but like him I think the proposal is an unreasonable attack on free speech.

    1. You make my point. A good example of why a response by civic Scotland thru the combination of education and legislation is the only way to tackle sectarianism. Leaving it to the usual suspects does not work.

      1. What point? You haven’t got a point other than your irrational hatred of the Labour Party (possibly coupled with a Billy Wolfe style view of Catholics?)

  3. It’s refreshing to see an artcle written by someone who’s talking sense for a change. Singing abusive sectarian songs at Old Firm games is all part of the fun of an enjoyable day out at Parkhead or Ibrox. I for one would certainly miss the tense atmosphere created by tens of thousands of screaming football fans determined to intimidate the players of the opposing team. That is modern football. For those, like Alex Salmond, who are shocked by this behaviour, I can only advise them to travel down to West Ham and sing ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air’, but don’t bother to invite me or my mates along. Keep it up, Michael!

  4. I very much doubt that Salmond is on the wrong side of the argument as far as most people are concerned, although I accept that there are practical difficulties.

    I think it highly unlikely that the majority of the population (as opposed, possibly only, to a majority of Old Firm supporters) are other than supportive of Salmond’s genuinely good intentions.

    I suspect that the majority of the people of Scotland would like to, in the words of a song that we all in Scotland should sing, “Forget the old orange and green.”

  5. Haven’t you( Michael Kelly) missed something rather significant in terms of what’s brought the government to this point, namely the fact that 1 prominent Celtic fan, their manager and lawyer connected with the club were sent bombs in the post by Rangers supporters? While I think Nigel makes a good point regarding it all being part of the banter the sad fact remains there are many idiots that take thing way too far. As for Michael post he’s spoiled it by making petty party political point’s what could have been a good argument descends into a contradictory anti SNP rant, ending as it does with so wild tangent about the SNP government being anti business??

    Also what point is he trying to make regarding Catholic School what said seems to be hugely enthusiastic and open to wildly different interpretations?

    Though with my football supporters rather than me SNP supporters hat on this law does seem to have the potenieal to deal a near fatal blow to Scottish football given that it states any” ‘behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive.’ Is punishable by law, this could really kill what little atomsphere is left at Scottish football grounds.

    That said I think Mac has made a very good point regarding Scottish studies which ties in well with what Mr Kelly said about education. A large source of the sectarain problem comes not from relgion but rather Irish and British nationalism (just count the Union and Irish tri colours) amongst primarily (though not exculisvely) Old firm fans and it seems clear a balanced program of Scottish Studies would go some way to adressing this problem at its root.

  6. This is such an idiotic article that I can’t help feel that Mr Kelly is seeking forgiveness from the Celtic hordes for almost losing them their club way back.
    And not like a Glaswegian to write an article without having a pop at Edinburgh. No wait, he called the capital ‘douce’. Even in an article on something as serious as sectarianism he can’t help playing the weegie card.

    I’d rather live in a sober capital than one where people stab each other for wearing the wrong strip. Miles Better eh?

  7. The comments from Mac on this page are spot on.

    We haven’t learned the lesson from our defeat. Have a pop at the SNP regardless of the issue and end up looking stupid. We spent the last 4 years doing this and look where it got us…absolutely nowhere.

    Learn the lesson guys or we are doomed to opposition for the a generation.

  8. Mr Kelly misses the point, that most Scots, whether footie fans or not, are sick to death of the conduct of many of the “Old Firm fans. Not just the often obscene chanting at stadiums but the unsocial cavorting in the streets and on public transport.If Mr Kelly would transfer these chants and insults from the realm of religion to that of race he might find himself in the same place as the majority of the populace. WE tend to think of these fans as “good old boys” but increasingly throughout Brittain and Europe, the welcome mat is being taken away.

  9. Yet another handwringer who calls for legislation but does not have the bottle to see it through.
    The behaviour of the Rangers and Celtic fans go beyond the pale. And its not just a small minority either. Vast swathes of their support have the mindset of the jungle and the country is going to have to swallow a very large pill if there is to be any hope in curbing this disgusting mindset.

  10. Courts jurors and judges are sensible enough to judge intent in context. Is Michael Kelly?

  11. It is a pity that LabourHame could not have sourced a more reasoned writer than Mr Kelly to criticise the SNP’s proposed legislaton, which should be opposed in the strongest way.

    What the legislation will do if enacted is criminalise normal tribalistic football rivalry. You see that all over the world, but only in Scotland will it become a criminal offence.

    That is a serious over-reaction to some individual criminal offences which the law can deal with as it is. It will make Scotland & the Scottish government a laughing stock.

    For the avoidance of doubt I can’t stand the Old Firm, but I don’t want to see their fans turned into criminals by an over zealous law.

    1. “What the legislation will do if enacted is criminalise normal tribalistic football rivalry. You see that all over the world, but only in Scotland will it become a criminal offence.”

      But only in Scotland do we regularly see normal tribalistic football rivalry result in brutal murders, organised campaigns of intimidation and violence, and the division of large parts of a major city along sectarian lines. I’m sure there are other places in the world where we see similar problems, but they all have something in common – it’s never really about the football.

      So it’s not football fans who will be criminalized. It is criminals.

      I have problems with the Bill too, but not at all with it’s intent.

  12. Sorry but the anti-sectarian laws do not “target football fans”. They target bigotry. I don’t see any protests on the slopes of Bayview or Firhill. REAL football fans, like most decent people in Scotland, will have no truck with the repugnant behaviour that is sectarianism. The SNP might not have this quite right, and it may not make a huge difference. Time will tell. But they are at least trying to do the right thing, and deserve Labour’s support. They looked at this legislation to stamp out the intimidation of high profile catholics. Is this fact lost on you, Michael Kelly?

  13. Rangers fans,celtic fans,both scotlands shame i wish the bigot bothers would clean their act up,if not they should be closed down.

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