The “anti-sectarianism Bill” is a dog’s breakfast, but Labour should allow ministers to retreat without losing face, writes TOM HARRIS


I left yesterday’s “People First” STUC-sponsored march through Glasgow in order to head to Ibrox. No, not to watch the game – I am well known for having less than no interest in kickerball, despite the national stadium being next door to my constituency office.

I was at Ibrox to help Dr Stuart Waiton, the founder of Take a Liberty (Scotland), Councillor David Fagan and others distribute leaflets to fans, asking for their support in opposing the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill, or the “Anti-Sectarianism Bill”, as it has become more commonly known.

My neutrality when it comes to the Great Divide on football has proved useful these past ten years. But like everyone else who grew up in the west of Scotland, it’s not something you can be entirely unaware of. In Ayrshire you knew when it was the marching season, although my parents, both non-practising members of the Church of Scotland, never encouraged me or my siblings to get involved in the Lodge beyond watching the marches pass our house. By the time my first child was born, I was living in Glasgow and for the first time I considered moving south of the border so that he wouldn’t have to grow up having to answer the question: “Which school did you go to?”

After the end of my first marriage, my oldest son was raised as a Roman Catholic and attended RC schools, so the  sectarian issue is one in which I have an emotional vested interest. I’ve therefore followed the debate on the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill with interest and nervousness. And the two points I want to make are these:

First, it is a bad Bill and if it makes it through the parliamentary process, it will create bad law. It will take up a hell of a lot of police and court time, cost a huge amount of money in the process and make many lawyers very large amounts of money. It may or may not send people – people who, as the law stands today, are guilty of no crime – to prison. And if the Bill does as it’s intended, it will send large numbers of people to prison, piling ever more pressure on our already pressed prison regime. And that’s if the Bill were even workable, which I very much doubt. Sending someone to prison for five years for singing an offensive song may have sounded a great soundbite when the media were howling at ministers demanding the Something Must be Done. But when violent rapists are having their sentences cut to less than that, you know that something is very, very wrong.

The second point is that Labour should acknowledge that the SNP Government, in proposing this legislation, were acting in good faith. Had Labour been elected in May, ministers would have come under exactly the same pressure and would have been offered exactly the same advice from the same civil servants. Who knows? They may even have accepted it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Roseanna Cunningham and Alex Salmond were, as I write, hoping for a way to back out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves without losing political face. There is, and Labour should provide it.

Labour should oppose this Bill, but we should also be prepared to applaud ministers if they display the courage and integrity required to admit that on this occasion, they made a human and honest misjudgment. Sectarianism is too ugly, too divisive, too serious a subject to make political capital out of.

Salmond was trying to do good in a very difficult and delicate area. He should be congratulated for that and he should be reassured that Labour can recognise that a government admitting it got it wrong and wishing to start afresh is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Tom Harris is the Labour MP for Glasgow South. He Tweets as @Tom4Scotland.

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63 thoughts on “Hoping for an opportunity to applaud the SNP

  1. In my own opinion, while I admire the SNP’s attempts to tackle sectarianism – something which no other party has tried to do – I feel this problem would only ever finally die if Scotland became independent.

    It always strikes me as odd that people call it ‘Scotland’s shame’ when sectarianism is intimately associated with the union itself. After all, what exactly would unionist (loyalist) rangers thugs be loyal too in an independent Scotland?

    Likewise, with the Union Jack no longer a flag, what exactly would they wave, English flags?

    In Eire, protestants and catholics get along just fine I understand. It is the political structure of the UK that is a major root cause of sectarianism here.

    Food for thought.

    1. Historically the British government and military stirred up and encouraged sectarianism in Ireland as a method of divide and rule.

      Too bad so many sectarian numpties today don’t realise this.

    2. Firstly it is untrue and unfair to suggest that no other government has tried to tackle sectarianism. The 1999-2007 government made significant steps, including the introduction of statutory aggravations and significant funding for groups like Nil By Mouth. So let’s drop the revisionism.

      Second, the idea that sectarianism ends with independence is childish politics, implicit in which is an assumption that one side is the aggressor and the other innocent. This simply isn’t true.

      I agree with Tom that we should applaud the motivation of the present government in bringing forward this legislation, but they need to let it go now. The trick will be finding a way to do so which doesn’t send the wrong message. Such are the pitfalls of message politics.

    3. You are correct Mr Skier, to point out the glaringly obvious fact that without Unionism, the political illness that is sectarianism is dead. In fact all that would be left is the dregs of religious bigotry. The removal of which will take a mite longer to achieve.

      Meanwhile, Tom Harris continues in the same vein as many of his fellow contributors, namely criticising the attempts by the Scottish Government to tackle this problem whilst offering not one example of what he or his party would do in their stead.

  2. I agree. It has the makings of a real pain in the neck for the courts. It is ill conceived legislation, and may even end up as an embarrassment being challenged in other courts. It has served a purpose by raising the significance of the issue in the public arena, but a different approach is needed. CFC and RFC need to take a lead in this managed by a government appointed task force, combined with strict use of existing legislation. To let the proposed legislation go further will keep constant international spotllight on a facet of Scottish life which would be better dealt with in the confines of Scotland’s own home. It will almost certainly not serve the purpose for which it is intended. The SNP has the backbone to pull back when required- this should be one such occasion.

  3. Agree it’s a hasty and badly thought out bill.

    Not sure the SNP were acting in good faith in pursuing it: anti-sectarianism intitiaives were a prominent feature of Jack McConnell’s time as FM. The SNP sneeringly dismissed them as unnecessary for four years, only to change tune when they thought, as you said, they had an easy populist win…

  4. Quote,16 May 2009, Former First Minister Jack McConnell, “If I have regrets, and I do have a regret that comes from hindsight, it is that I didn’t put more of the things that I really cared about as First Minister into legislation. I wish I had passed a bill on government action on sectarianism. We passed individual pieces of legislation but we did not pull it all together and put duties on ministers to keep that work going, at least in the short to medium term, until we had eradicated it.”

    It is quite clear that there is a need for comprehensive anti-sectarian legislation.

  5. A sensible, grown-up approach to take Tom – I wonder if it’ll filter through to your MSP colleagues? Now, talking of opposing badly thought out legislation, what do you think of the Scotland bill?

    1. You make a good point.

      Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are opposed to Coalition cuts in public spending.

      Why then are Labour supporting the Scotland Bill at both Westminster and Holyrood which will ultimately see punitive cuts in public spending in Scotland.

      If Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs have the ability to recognise bad bills as they claim they why aren’t actively flagging up the major flaws in the Scotland Bill.

  6. Ok fair enough Tom.
    Nobody would question the motives of a bill trying to tackle racism or sexism. And sectarianism is no different. Wheter or not you see it as part of west of Scotland “culture” is utterly repugnant to me and many others, nationalist and unionist alike. So yes, people should applaud the SNP for trying to do something substantial. It might make a difference. It might not. But Salmond was asked to get involved and he did. The SNP have been brave and had a serious go at it. At the end of the day, sectarianism is disgusting, and has no place in civilised country.

  7. A very fair post from Tom who rightly points out that ”Had Labour been elected in May, ministers would have come under exactly the same pressure and would have been offered exactly the same advice from the same civil servants. Who knows? They may even have accepted it.”

    I do wish people would stop using this as a *political* football & start out from the premise that *we* might be making a big mistake here, not just the SNP. If the bill is passed then it’s because not enough people oppose it; perhaps because it is an SNP bill so it must be magic. OR opposition is just seen as being anti-SNP because everything the SNP do is wrong, even when sometimes it isn’t.

    Could we just stick to the facts which are that this bill runs the risk of imprisoning normal football fans for being, well, football fans. It isn’t about the future of the union or any of the usual arguments.

    Posters who oppose the bill should visit the Take a Liberty website & sign the petition.

  8. Aint this just about being against something that the SNP are doing because Labour needs and wants to oppose everything that they do. Even if it is against the interest and or wishes of the people.

    I am not sure of this legislation however surely its worth a go with all parties working together to get it right for benefit of people.

      1. No just feel that a lot of things that labour do seem2 come across as just cos the snp wanna, meaning oppose just cos its them. Think a better way would be 2 engage n support in the interest of people. The bigotry stuff is way 2 much but all governments seem 2 have failed potentially this will too however perhaps more success if government just shows a united front.

        1. The sectarianism bill is agreed by most to be badly thought out and difficult to enforce. Should Labour support it just so you can say “oh good, Labour is’nt just opposing things”?

          In which case a bad bill becomes a bad law…?

  9. I posted a reply to Michael Kelly’s article which wasn’t published presumably because I cited some of the sectarian/racist things which people would be at perfect liberty to say and sing in the privacy of their own home or indeed someone else’s home if the Bill was passed. The point being that this legislation is not about policing peoples right to be bigoted or racist, it is essentially about keeping the peace by restraining public displays of testosterone and drink fuelled tribal rivalry which all too often spills over into violence and which the majority of people (including the vast majority of Glaswegians incidentally for those who think this is just a weegie problem) find disgusting and unacceptable.

    The fact that they find the behaviour disgusting is not, however, reason to ban it. The fact that sectarian behaviur is often a prelude to violence is the reason to address it. Singing a song should not, of itself, be wrong, neither should chanting a particular comment or making a particular gesture be an offence in itself. But doing those things specifically to wind up other people, to provoke them into an extreme reaction, can and should be an offence if the police believe it is likely to lead to trouble either at or after the game.

    So, yes, there are indeed knotty issues about the legal process, why breach of the peace is not sufficient and how legislation can be framed so that it does not have unintended consequences and does not open judgements up to human rights challenges.

    But that is not a reason not to do it. If we don’t do it, it leaves us in the same position as we are in now and I don’t think that is acceptable. If you don’t agree with me try phoning the police on a day when there is an old firm game on. That happened to a friend of mine who was phoning to report some youths attempting to break into cars outside her house. She was told, very apologetically, that they couldn’t send anyone because of the football. That’s not acceptable. We all pay for the police, we are all entitled to their protection. It is just not acceptable that there should be such a huge demand on police time and resources when Rangers and Celtic play that other areas of the city are left without cover.

    So how do we address it? Some of the alternatives suggested – such as making clubs play games behind closed doors when there has been trouble at a preceding game or making clubs pay the full cost of the clean-up and police operation around the game – would lead to the clubs becoming bankrupt and going out of business. That would be one way to solve the problem but would be a bit drastic and I don’t imagine it would go down too well with fans. So other approaches must be considered.

    I really don’t think this is a problem which can be solved by education incidentally. Education is important, of course it is, but does anyone think that kids in Scotland in this day and age leave school without having been taught that sectarianism, like racism, is wrong? I don’t think they are left in any doubt about that. So while it is important to keep teaching that it is not the solution to address the behaviour of the stubborn minority. They know perfectly well that their behaviour is condemned by the society they live in but they don’t care – and they don’t think there will be any consequences.

  10. We hear that Labour politicians saying “I’m agin it”, but without specifically indentifying what their against. So what bits of this legislation are problematic, what bits are bad and what bits are good?

    To bring forward a response here are the conclusions of the Scottish Youth Parliament in a written submission to the Scottish government proposals, dated 26th August 2011. We must remember that it is young people are the ones who can make a break with the past by rejecting the present behaviour of others.

    Tackling sectarian and related offensive behaviour is a concern and viewed as a priority for action by young people. In that light the Scottish Youth Parliament supports the introduction of new legislation designed to tackle sectarianism and the principles of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill. However, with regard to online harassment and threats, we would welcome the production of guidance to clarify the scope and extent of the law and what actions are liable to face prosecution.
    Additionally, clarification of whether the scope of the legislation extends, or could extend, to protection of online harassment motivated by prejudice would be welcomed, as the Bill represents an opportunity to address incidents of bullying and threatening behaviour online.
    Whilst the Bill is a positive step towards tackling sectarian behaviour in the context of football matches and threats made online, the problems associated with sectarianism are complex and deep-rooted and must be the target of sustained action by the Scottish Government and Parliament to address the root causes. The Scottish Youth Parliament would welcome any opportunity to work together with decision-makers to tackle the underlying causes of sectarian behaviour in Scotland.

    Young Scots will not forgive the present generation of politicians if they just sit on their hands and do nothing about sectarianism. So what needs to be done to make this legislation better?

    1. I wrote a little about this some weeks ago on AMAM blog:

      Alongside the inevitably woolly definitions of hate speech, which risk both criminalising fair comment and making the law impossible to enforce, there is the whole question of “send a message” law. The bottom line is that violence, harassment and intimidation are all already illegal. There’s no evidence to suggest making them more illegal in specific contexts will change behaviour.

      What legislation needs to do is implement changes which will address the root causes of sectarianism. Here’s one practical suggestion: let’s take religion out of schools altogether. No more “non-denominational” schools, no more “Catholic” schools. Just schools. How about that?

      1. I would ask you to consider that the education system is not the root cause of sectarianism.

        Most Glaswegians are not sectarian after all – even though we all went to different schools. And sectarianism is not a problem in England or in other European countries – even though they have Catholic schools.

        How did it become a problem in Scotland? Well for historical reasons which are well enough known. Why does it continue to be a problem though? I would ask you to consider that it is largely a matter of personal choice. It may be partly to do with family upbringing, though I know plenty of people who have been brought up in a particular way and have chosen to live in another way so it’s not just as simple as that.

        But it has very little to do with schools. I don’t discount the possibility that there may be individual teachers with sectarian attitudes because there are rotten apples in every barrel but the education system itself is not sectarian and if individual teachers are they should be sacked.

        There is of course a perfectly valid argument for a wholly secular state education system but I suggest those arguments should be made on the basis of what benefit that should bring – not on the basis that abolishing Catholic schools would abolish sectarianism. It really wouldn’t, indeed it could make it worse.

        I think people really need to grasp that sectarianism is actually not about religious beliefes. Religion is just the badge of difference, it’s not the cause.

        1. Firstly, I didn’t say the answer to sectarianism was to abolish Catholic schools. I was quite clear and careful in saying that removing ALL religion from schools might *help* reduce sectarianism. It is sad that such an argument gets immediately characterised as being a call to end Catholic schools.

          Second, the argument that religious schooling exists elsewhere misses the point. You rightly say that sectarianism didn’t spring from religious schooling – but my point is that in a sectarian society religious schooling may exacerbate the problem.

          Third, the idea that sectarian crime is “largely a matter of personal choice” is neither news nor useful. Almost all crime is personal choice. The issue under discussion is how we influence the choices people make!

          1. Sorry but your comments clearly identified the existence of Catholic schools as one of the root causes of sectarianism. I don’t accept that. Nor do I accept your suggestion that we live in a sectarian society. We live in a society in which sectarianism is a problem – that is not the same thing.

            The vast majority of people who go through our school system do not emerge as sectarian bigots. I see no compelling reason therefore to tear up a system which serves the majority fairly well in order to deal with bigoted behaviour from a minority.

          2. More evidence of how quickly this discussion can become dysfunctional. I did NOT identify the existence of Catholic schools as a root cause of sectarianism, and I have clarified that twice already. I identified religious schooling, and the divisions within it, as an element that may exacerbate the existing sectarian problems in society.

            We are doomed never to address this issue if we cannot talk about it honestly.

        2. Sectarianism is certainly not about religious beliefs. The cause of sectarianism has more to do with blind ignorance and irrational hostility than any cause associated with churches or schools. Today there is more ecumenical dialogue than ever before but fewer people going to church. Sectarianism has more and more become an athiest prejudice based upon ignorance and historical differences that no longer exist in the religious community of Scotland.

          1. I think I understand what you’re trying to say, but sectarianism is most certainly about religious beliefs, by definition and by observation. What I think you mean is that those who perpetuate it are no longer concerned with the religious, but with the rivalry – and that’s very probably true. But that parallels a societal shift from religion as a belief to religion as a badge of belonging. The majority of those claiming a Christian faith in this country do not attend church, but assert “Christianity” as their heritage and familial association.

            But to say that makes sectarianism an atheist prejudice takes things far too far. Sectarianism may be misunderstood, or perverted, religious prejudice, but it is nothing to do with atheism.

          2. Duncan the point I was trying to make was that sectarianism in it’s previous life followed the definition as described in the dictionary as, “a narrow-minded adherence to a particular sect or party or denomination.” What has happened now are people who neither believe in god nor practice religion at all but classify themselves as Christians by the team that they follow and the prejudice that follows. So, simply put they aren’t Christian but have the prejudice from historical behaviour and believe in nothing, which in anyone’s eyes classifies them as atheistic and prejudiced.

          3. I don’t think we are in disagreement on anything but the terms we’re using. For me if someone self-defines as religious (or atheist) then that is what they are. Calling people atheists because you don’t consider them to be “true” Christians does a great disservice to real atheists.

            Nonetheless, I think we are in broad agreement. Nobody indulging in sectarian violence or hate speech today is doing so because they consider their religion to be better than someone else’s, but because they consider their gang/team/family/tribe to be better. Religion is shorthand for social grouping.

          4. Raymond, I think you’re trying to link atheism and sectarianism in a disingenuous manner here.

            By your logic, sectarianism isn’t a problem in Scotland. Yes, there’s rivalry, yes there’s hatred but it’s nothing to do with religion so isn’t sectarianism. Does that about sum it up?

            At the end of the day, regardless of whether they actually practice their Christian faith, most Rangers fans would describe themselves as Protestant and most Celtic fans would describe themselves as Catholic. Along with their football colours, that’s how these people organise themselves into their tribal rivalries. They may not understand how the Church started or the pressures that led to the Scottish Reformation but that doesn’t make them atheists.

            After all, a lapsed Catholic, in the eyes of the Church, remains Catholic and these people will consider themselves so. Sir Kingsley Amis, in his book “One Fat Englishman”, wrote “He was of the faith chiefly in the sense that the church he currently did not attend was Catholic”. To tell people such as these that they are not Catholic (or Protestant for that matter) but are, instead, atheists would come as a great shock to many, I’m sure.

          5. Duncan the main point is that if any of the people involved in the behaviour that we are talking about were true Christians they would know better than behave in the manner that they have. Modern day Christianty in Scotland has moved a long way from where it was even 20 years ago. The main point in my contribution is not to take away anything from the dicussion that is very good but to clarify these points.
            Don Mc much the same point. The association by name of a denomination in this case is purely historical and not actual. You can’t be something that your not even if you hope that you are, if your not practising then what are you? It isn’t fashionable today to say that you go to church because society today has reduced that value to a material value and not for what it actually is which is spiritual. So my point is that if they practice and choose not to then they are not Christian in the true sense of the word and probably never have been.

          6. That last sentence should read, “So my point is If they want to practice and choose not to then they are not Christian in the true sense of the word and probably never have been.”

          7. Understood and appreciated Raymond. My point stands that calling people atheists because you don’t consider them to be “true” Christians does a great disservice to actual atheists.

          8. Duncan I think we can agree to disagree on that point. I wish the untrue athiests who populate the football grounds that we are talking about were as articulate. :-))

  11. A thoughtful article Tom and your reasonable and balanced view of the SNP is to be commended. Clearly you are against the proposed legislation but I wonder what solutions you propose to tackle this problem. As a contender for the leadership of Labour in Scotland (and presumably a potential future FM) I think you need to suggest answers to problems, not simply highlight the flaws in your opponents’ ideas.

    In the absence of alternatives I would support the legislation with a sunset clause so that we could review its effectiveness in a year or so. Obviously sensible guidelines must be given to the police and courts so that we don’t see an influx of football fans heading to jail. Fines and community service (perhaps involving anti-sectarian work?) would be preferable for all but the most egregious cases.

  12. There is a general acceptance that something has to happen to change the way sectarianism has been dealt with up to now but Tom’s points’ are right. The existing legislation for breach of the peace and assault are already there and work as we have seen over the years. What is not working is the way that people view their perceived opposition and their behaviour in that context. Football is the vehicle that is being used in order to antagonise and wind-up the other group, but it is the underlying hatred that drives this forward in certain circumstances, most people generally don’t react. That is a problem for society and not just football. A group comprising the churches, the football authorities, anti-sectarian organisations and the police would provide a better basis for discussion and agreement. I often wonder how many of the protagonists actually do go to church as the churches are having their name used in vain?

    The legislation is not going to work in it’s proposed form but it was worth a try.

    A cross party agreement to take matters forward with this group will be better as everyone would be in this together and there would be a constructive framework to provide agreed solutions. So far all that has happened has been an ability to unite the supporters in their opposition to a bill with good intentions and unpredictable outcomes in court. We should all take time out and work together on this one, at least for future generations and putting aside party politics

    1. But is the existing law sufficient? This is what the Lord Advocate said:

      “Over the past few years, the common-law crime of breach of the peace has been developing as a result of the European convention on human rights, which requires that a citizen knows what is criminal and what is not. The argument is that breach of the peace is ill defined and that the limits of the crime are not well enough defined for a citizen to know whether certain conduct is criminal or not. For example, recently—that is, in the past couple of years—it has been held that for breach of the peace to apply there must be a public element to it. For example, conduct in a private dwelling house can no longer be a breach of the peace, although it was treated as such in various cases in the early 1960s.

      Further, the definition of breach of the peace requires the conduct to be
      “severe enough to cause alarm to ordinary people and threaten serious disturbance to the community”
      “genuinely alarming and disturbing, in its context, to any reasonable person”.

      Under that definition of breach of the peace, there have been cases—I do not want to name names, but I am quoting from case reports—in which a sheriff has ruled that supporters shouting racist abuse at a black player, or another supporter grunting in an ape-like fashion and shouting racist abuse at a black player, did not amount to breach of the peace. The view was taken that
      “the conduct was over very quickly,”
      that it was not “flagrant”, that it took place
      “in the midst of the cauldron of sound which emanates from any large sports crowd”,
      and that it could not
      “be interpreted as … conduct which would be alarming or seriously disturbing to any reasonable person in the particular circumstances of the football match.”

      In cases involving conduct at football matches, defences have been run that no fear and alarm is caused by offensive chanting and singing and that at the end of the match it was clear that no public disorder resulted.

      The bill seeks to define offensive behaviour so that the police and the courts can apply that definition to the conduct itself. Breach of the peace could still develop, because breach of the peace is a common-law crime, as a result of further cases and further jurisprudence. That deals with the current law and breach of the peace.”

      So that is the legal position. Now I am quite happy for a public element to apply to this sort of offence. I don’t think there is any case for prosecuting someone for what they say or do in the privacy of their own home or someone else’s house or even in a private club and that is not proposed. The issue for me is whether someone’s behaviour in public is not only likely to cause a breach of the peace but is intended to – in other words, if it is deliberately provocative.

      For example, if an individual or group of individuals went into a pub or a shopping centre or some other public place and started hurling racist or sectarian abuse at passers by I have no doubt that the police would be called and if they did not desist they would be arrested and charged with breach of the peace.

      So why does that not apply in or around football matches? To me it is ludicrous to argue that it’s OK to hurl abuse if other people are doing it as well – you may as well say that if you see a group of people looting a shop it’s OK to join in. Equally it is ludicrous to say that a person is guilty of breach of the peace only if public disorder results as a direct consequence of their behaviour. We all know that public disorder at Rangers/Celtc football matches is only prevented by the presence of vast numbers of police officers and even then they do not always manage to prevent it. But that is the position that sheriffs have taken.

      I think many people just don’t understand why it is that behaviour which would result in someone being arrested in normal circumstances is tolerated if it is associated with a football match. It is about time this special treatment was stopped, in my view at least. And if people really want to show that Scottish society has moved on then that seems to me to be a fairly straightforward way of doing it.

      1. Interesting and thought-provoking idea that the problem we face is tolerance of criminal behaviour when indulged in at football matches. Makes me wonder whether it is simply a matter of overwhelming odds – if thousands are criminal at once, the police are pretty much powerless to stop it.

        Again, though, I don’t see how a new criminal offence helps here. Wouldn’t it just lengthen the odds?

      2. I don’t disagree with basically everything that you say, disorder is disorder. I also agree what is the difference in disorder outside a football ground and what constitutes disorder within it, I think however that is the essence of the problem. How you distinguish provocative behaviour as opposed to supportive behaviour (for the team) is where you have to highlight the differences. In football that can be very difficult. Football clubs can and are used to promote social differences between groups of people, another example is Barcelona against Real Madrid, Catalans against Franco’s pub team as it was called from the Spanish civil war.
        If there is a cross party group set up to identify ways forward this would enable a constructive and mature way of dealing with a problem that should have been resolved a long time ago.
        If they can resolve matters in Northern Ireland why not here?

        1. The decision on whether someone is behaving in a way that is intentionally provcative and designed to provoke an extreme reaction would be down to the police. As it is at present. The police decide if someone is behaving in a way which is likely to lead to a breach of the peace. Prosecutors decide if they should be charged and prosecuted for that and the courts decide if they should be punished.

          I think what the Lord Advocate is saying is that a) there is insufficient clarity on what constitutes an offence in this context and b) that there has been a culture of tolerating racist/sectarian behaviour in individuals because it is widespread in and around football matches so courts have decided that, because lots of people have been doing it, there is no case for an individual to answer.

          I can understand that argument on one level – if you are one individual out of hundreds who has, for example, been making monkey noises at a black player it would be hard lines if you got done for it and the rest of them didn’t. But that’s the way the law works. It is hard lines for the looters who got arrested down south when so many others have not been arrested. But I don’t think anyone would argue that is a reason not to punish the ones who did end up in court.

  13. Quote, The Herald, “Tom Harris, who is campaigning to be Labour’s Scottish leader, handed out leaflets outside a match between Rangers and Hibs on Saturday, urging fans to sign a petition against the Scottish Government’s bill aimed at tackling religious hatred in football.”

    It seems rather odd that in the media Tom Harris is defining his leadership campaign by his opposition to anti-sectarian legislation. I understand the need for traction in such campaigns but surely for party members it is what you stand for and what you believe in over a whole range of issues that determines leadership qualities. Further, does Tom Harris define himself by opposing government action on binge drinking, gambling and the introduction of safety measures that Dr Stuart Waiton appears also to oppose?

  14. This is a very difficult subject and I credit Tom’s attempts to take the politics out of it, although his hopes of the Labour party showing the level of maturity required to ensure the best solution here seem forlorn if the likes of Michael Kelly’s article is anything to go by.

    The question, though, is what is the solution? Tom doesn’t offer anything substantial. Yes, there are existing laws but while these existing laws have been in place, we’ve seen hate campaigns on facebook, bullets sent through the post, managers attacked on the touchlines, sustained levels of domestic violence after football games, and more. Yes, there has been arrests and even, sometimes, prosecutions but there’s no denying the existing laws haven’t acted as a deterrent for these acts.

    Now, I detest hate crime legislation as much as the next man, with it’s Orwellesque thought crime overtones. We even have to ask how effective this type of legislation actually is – of the legislation introduced during the last Labour government, how many convictions has there been for hate crimes and how much has the reporting of hate crimes increased/decreased?

    But, then, what is the solution? Whilst many argue that sectarianism starts in the home, that’s an easy get out for those who don’t want any focus to fall on society’s structures. Does the whole separate school issue have an effect? I honestly believe that telling a 5 year old that they are different from their neighbour and, therefore, have to go to a different school does have a detrimental effect. It may only be slight but I believe it’s there. I don’t often agree with Duncan but I think, as a starting point, he has an idea.

  15. I think we all agree that there is a problem with football related sectarian violence & abuse. However that has been around for a very long time, so if there is now a political will across the Parliament to tackle it then I think what Tom is doing is making a plea that we get it right.

    The bill as we see it now is so badly defined that it is absolutely inevitable that it will have unintended consequences. I believe that it is absolutely inevitable that if it is enacted into law & custodial sentences issued it will end up in the other court that Laurence McHale alluded to earlier.

    Do we really want to see the Scottish justice system in the dock at the Supreme Court again?

    Some posters seem to take the view that there is a problem so we have to do something so let’s try this. That may be OK if you are talking about a policy change, but not if it is about passing legislation that could see people criminalised & incarcerated for something which is not currently considered a crime in this country, or any other comparable country.

    Let’s catch a grip.

  16. Sectarianism is learned behaviour. I don’t believe it is learned in schools, for the reason Indy referred to earlier, everybody in Glasgow including myself went to a school which was either RC or non denominational. We are not all sectarians.

    Given that it is learned behaviour, & that sectarians tend to hang about with other people who have learned the same behaviour, what will be the effect of incarcerating people for singing ”their” songs, or being abusive to the ”enemy”?

    I think it will entrench that behaviour & feed their crazy & paranoid views. I don’t think it will act as a deterrant. We have to start out from the position that the people carrying out these anti-social actions are not like the rest of us.

    1. I have no desire to prevent people singing their songs or indeed sticking pins into voodoo dollies of their enemy provided they do not cause a public nuisance at best or spark off a blooming great riot at worst while doing it.

  17. The idea that sectarianism would end under independence is possibly one of the loopiest suggestions I have read. The neds of either flag really aren’t fighting for Irish independence or for the Monarchy. And they won’t go away if there is constitutional change. They are fighting over football.

    Let’s be honest here: the tale is wagging the dog. Sectarianism only really lives on at football. The rest of us work together, live in the same areas, have the same interests and don’t go to church. Discrimination is rare in adult lives.

    The only area where sectarianism has been encouraged has been in football, where it has been a highly successful and profitable strategy for both Rangers and Celtic until recent years. The Old Firm was a very profitable firm.

    I accept that both clubs have in recent years tried to undo the damage they have done. But it will take a long time to make change at that level.

    1. In my opinion modern sectarianism has its roots in the migration of hundreds of thousands of Irish people to Scotland during and after the Famine. It’s really got nothing to do with religion. It’s an accident of history that Scotland became largely a Protestant country and Ireland stayed largely Catholic. In a parallell universe it might have happened the other way around. So the basic reason religion became an issue is because Irish people in Scotland could be identified not only by their surnames but by the fact that they were Catholic. What made it even more toxic of course was the situation in Northern Ireland.

      For most of my life a frank discussion of sectarianism and the fact that it is basically anti-Irish racism has been quite difficult when “in mixed company” as they say. We have all tended to pussyfoot around it for fear of causing offence.

      And if I could cross-reference with the debate about Scottish Studies when I was at school the teaching of Irish history and the connections with Scotland was non-existent. I suspect that situation is not much changed. That is a shame given that so many of us have Irish as well as Scottish ancestry. Maybe now is the time to address that.

  18. I live in a town on the east coast where violence after an old firm game is not uncommon.

    The most recent old firm game ended in at least three individuals being hospitalised.

    The problem with sectarianism is that it exists and will always exist, no legislation , nor politicians words are going to change that. It is endemic within Scottish Culture.

    If we are really serious about dealing with the problem then let’s start with the media.

    Let’s take old firm games off the TV, let’s stop the media printing or reporting on anything to do with old firm games, let’s stop selling replica shirts and , let’s stop calling our local pubs with names that have a reference to football teams.

    Just a few suggestions but come on they are not going to happen because big business determines what we watch, what we read and what we buy.

    Call me pessimistic but things are not going to change.

    1. If you do that you will put Rangers and Celtic out of business. That’s the problem with most of the alternatives that are suggested to this Bill. They tend to end up with the clubs going bankrupt.

        1. Well that is not the outcome the Government wants. Indeed I believe it is what they are trying to avoid if only the fans would understand that.

  19. Look Duncan I am not trying to be dishonest but I don’t think my interpretation of your comments is wrong. You said: “What legislation needs to do is implement changes which will address the root causes of sectarianism. Here’s one practical suggestion: let’s take religion out of schools altogether. No more “non-denominational” schools, no more “Catholic” schools. Just schools. How about that?”

    I understand that argument and in a philsosphical sense I could agree with it but in practical terms I don’t agree with it and I actually think it could make sectarianism worse as it would be seen by some as a victory against Catholics – seen that way by the kind of people who say things like why should they have their own schools etc.

    To be absolutely clear I am not saying you are that kind of person, not at all. But can you understand that for many Catholics the idea that Catholic education contributes to sectarianism comes perilously close to blaming the victim for the crime?

    And in any case the case against Catholic schools in terms of the sectarian debate misses the point. Most Catholics do not define themselves or their religion as being in opposition to anyone else. They are not sectarian. And of course many people who go to Catholic schools are not Catholic. Most of my Pakistani friends support Celtic and went to Catholic schools. But they are not Catholics. So it’s just not as simple as saying religion is at the bottom of it all because it really isn’t.

    For example do you think Neil Lennon has been persecuted in the way he has just because he is Catholic? That’s not the reason. It’s because he stopped playing for N Ireland after he got death threats because he supposedly said that he would like to play for a United Ireland team. That’s why he has been the subject of all the nonsense that has gone on. Removing religion from schools in Scotland would do absolutely nothing to address the kind of mentality that thinks it is OK to persecute Neil Lennon. All it would do is upset a lot of people for no particular end that I can see.

    1. Let’s be perfectly honest Indy this entire moral panic has been brought about by the ”Neil Lennon story” & the SNP’s embarrassment about it.

      I agree it is embarrassing, but we should let the Police do their job & prosecute the *criminals* .

      It strikes me that if this bill is passed, then Lennon himself has a good chance of falling foul of it for his own ”protection”.

      1. Eh? It is the police who have asked for the law to be strengthened.

        Of course the fact that the police have asked for the law to be strengthened does not mean that it should automatically happen. It’s the Government’s decision. But it is not based on one or two incidents. It’s based on thousands.

        1. Coppers are not legislators.

          Stephen House is to be congratulated for coming up from the Met, looking round Strathclye, thinking bloody hell, & doing something about it.

          He is tackling gangs & organised crime. He is tackling the scourge of domestic violence. He has made the Orange Walk behave for the first time in living memory.

          He can do something about football hooligans too, without draconian legislation.

    2. “For example do you think Neil Lennon has been persecuted in the way he has just because he is Catholic?”


      I think it is because he is a despicable little wind-up merchant.

      1. He must deserve it then, eh? Death threats, assaults, letter bombs, gangs turning up armed at the Celtic training ground – obviously the victim is to blame! FFS.

    3. ” Most of my Pakistani friends support Celtic and went to Catholic schools.”

      Do you think that there might be a colleration there?

  20. Duh yes. But the correlation is not based on religion. Unless you are one of the sad souls who believes there are Catholic Muslims and Protestant Muslims?

    1. “Unless you are one of the sad souls who believes there are Catholic Muslims and Protestant Muslims?”

      Ah yes, I heard that Glasgow SNP MSP on Radio Scotland actually try to claim that one of his cousins had been asked that by a Rangers fan.

      Don’t politicians know that when they tell whoppers they get found out?

      Anyway, the correlation is that in catholic schools the majority of the kids support Celtic so it’s hardly surprising that if your mates go to a catholic school peer group pressure guides them to the East of the city when they’re looking for a team to support..

  21. For too long we’ve allowed sectarian morons to get away with their vile behaviour, almost to the point of accepting it as normal in some places and in certain situations.

    Well it ain’t normal – it’s completely unacceptable. I was brought up around sectarian bigots from both sides of the divide, I’ve witnessed their bile first hand and I’ve had enough of these idiots bringing shame on this country and its people. It’s time to send a message to sectarian bigots everywhere that we’re sick of them and their moronic behaviour.

    I support the Government in this initiative and I hope that everyone will work together to ensure the legislation is as tight and effective as it can be.

    I remember not too long ago when casual racism was a routine occurrence. Nowadays people wince when it rears its ugly head. This is thanks in part to anti-racism legislation.

    I hope this legislation will have a similar effect.

  22. Good point, King Kurt. Casual racism was once very prevalent at the football, and there seemed to be different standards applied to it when it was football-related – there was a sort of weary acceptance that this kind of thing would happen, almost as if it was in the nature of the game. But that all changed, due to changes in the law, and it is now a rarity to hear that kind of abuse at matches.

    I have doubts, concerns, problems with the Sectarianism Bill, and with how it could be applied (or even IF it can be applied – some of it doesn’t sound very legal), but it can be fixed if everybody works together, for once, to improve the legislation, as a team.

    The problem of sectarianism is much bigger than party politics (although sometimes the two things look similar, hehe). If this Bill fails you will all have to get together and draft another one. I hope you can do that.

  23. Sectarianism should be in the same league as Rascism, zero tolerence, and mr Harris is not doing Labour any favours by trying to stir up fans with leaflets, the biggots will be taken in by this, but the majority of Celtic / Rangers are not biggots. I think anything proposed by the SNP is attacked by Labour, and the hatred and bitterness should stop or Labour in Scotland will be seen as a negative party.

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