An Offensive Act?

p23-mainIn June 2011 I wrote about proposals contained in the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill’, which went on to become law on March 1st 2012.

At the time, I praised the SNP Government for their quick action in bringing forward legislation to tackle sectarianism and bigotry: the SNP had formed a majority government just one month earlier after a landslide victory in the Scottish Parliament Election. I still believe the SNP are due praise for making the issue a priority and attempting to take decisive action.

In March 2012, just days after the anti-sectarian legislation became law, I stood outside Ibrox stadium before an Old Firm game. There was no evidence of sectarian songs being sung – certainly not within earshot of the police – which suggested the new law was having an impact. However, I did witness police stand and watch as Rangers fans repeatedly chanted slogans actually containing the word ‘hate’. The chants were not directed at other football teams or members of different religions, but at the First Minister and political party that had introduced legislation preventing the same Rangers fans from singing about being up to their knees in fenian blood. Again, the fact Rangers fans felt driven to chant “We hate Alex Salmond” and “We hate the SNP” seemed to suggest the new legislation was hurting the bigots.

However, in almost two-years since the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill became law, it has been Celtic fans that have been most vehement in their criticism of the legislation. Just last week, Celtic Football Club took the unusual step of issuing an official statement on the subject. Celtic said the club had always opposed the legislation, stating, “We believe the Scottish Government should review, as a matter of urgency, the way in which this unhelpful and counter-productive Act is operating.”

So, did the SNP Scottish Government get it wrong?

Certainly, the intention was right. Launching the proposals in parliament, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Community Safety Minister, said, “This Bill sends out an important message about the kind of Scotland we want to live in, because the vast majority of people in this country have no time whatsoever for the kind of mindless bigotry that has attached itself to the small minority who only damage and undermine our beautiful game – or those who peddle hatred by sitting behind a computer screen posting threats of harm on the internet. This is the 21st Century, and this kind of behaviour is simply not acceptable.”

Who would argue with Ms Cunningham’s statement? Who would support sectarianism, bigotry and threats?

Even political opponents knew the time had long passed for action to be taken, but when in power they had failed to bring forward any concrete proposals. Jack McConnell, Labour First Minister from 2001 to 2007, had initiated a Summit on Sectarianism, which met twice (February 2005 and January 2006), ultimately producing an Action Plan on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland. Ahead of the first ‘summit’ meeting, Mr McConnell said, “The bigoted and sectarian attitudes of a minority have scarred Scottish life for too long. I have seen this bigotry throughout my life and I still see it today in some parts of Scotland. Manifestations of sectarian bigotry may change, but the divisions, anger and resentment that they cause remain firmly entrenched in Scottish life. It doesn’t have to be like this…The tide is turning against the bigoted few and we must let the bigots and bullies know that sectarian behaviour has no place in today’s Scotland.”

Again, who would argue with those comments? Who would support sectarianism, bigotry or threats?

Despite the summits and the action plan, little was done to tackle sectarianism under the McConnell-led Scottish Executive (as it was then called).

So, I stand by my praise for the SNP Government in making the issue a priority and taking decisive action to tackle Scotland’s shame. However, I now believe the SNP and I got it wrong on the timescale behind the introduction of legislation. At the time (June 2011), I wrote that it was right to act quickly and get the new law in place before the start of the 2012/13 football season. With the benefit of hindsight, I now accept the drafting of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill may have been rushed, resulting in legislation that, in parts, reads like a script for a convoluted comedy sketch.

For example, if my reading of the legislation is correct, it is not necessary for a ‘reasonable person’ to be offended by a particular act, simply that it “would be likely” that a reasonable person would be offended. Immediately, the police are being handed the role of deciding who is a ‘reasonable person’ and whether or not that person “would be likely” to be offended by a particular action. The non-specific ‘reasonable person’ does not actually have to be in attendance when an offence is alleged to have been committed.

A person singing the Billy Boys while walking along the street could be committing an offence under the terms of the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation, but only if they admitted they were on their way to a regulated football match. If the person was on his way to a parade by the Orange Order, the singing of the song would be outwith the remit of the Act.

There are issues, too, involving the watching of Scottish football matches on television. A person could complain his neighbour sang an offensive song that could be heard through the wall of adjoining properties. If the song was sung while the neighbour was watching a Scottish football match on his telly, then apparently the ‘offence’ would fall within the remit if the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation. If the neighbour was singing while watching Coronation Street, then that would be a different story.

Away from a football-related environment, it would seem that police deal with offensive behaviour by using existing legislation, such as the common law offence of Breach of the Peace. As most people know, Breach of the Peace is often used as a ‘catch-all’ offence to apprehend those accused of just about anything that would alarm, annoy or disturb the public. Offences relating to Breach of the Peace can be ‘aggravated’ where an accused person has targeted their offensive behaviour towards someone based on the victim’s race, religion or sexual orientation.

All of which suggests that, perhaps, existing laws could be used to deal with offensive behaviour at football matches. Perhaps, if the police had been more inclined to act when offensive behaviour occurred at football matches in the past, then politicians would not have reached the conclusion that specific football-related legislation was required.

Having said that, one of the strongest arguments in favour of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act relates to the singing of specific songs. Would Breach of the Peace cover the singing of the Billy Boys, the Famine Song, the Fields of Athenry or the Roll of Honour?

On that point I believe consideration has to be given to the context of the songs.

For example, I cannot begin to imagine how the Fields of Athenry could be considered offensive. Stealing corn from a rich aristocrat to feed starving children is an act of which anyone should be proud. To manufacture offence at the words of the Fields of Athenry is to pervert the English language.

Roll of Honour is not such a clear-cut matter. Families of those who were killed by the IRA could understandably be offended by a song that appears to praise members of the organisation. However, when the song us sung by Celtic fans in the context of acknowledging those prepared to die in the fight for a free and united Ireland – given the club’s historic Irish roots – then a completely different perspective is applied.

It has to be said that most of the so-called contentious songs sung be Celtic fans relate to the underdog rising and fighting back against an oppressor – particularly, of course, in terms of the Irish Catholic population freeing itself from the rule of England (supported on the ground by poor Scottish Protestants). The role of supporting the oppressed stems, literally, from the first day of Celtic’s existence, when the football club was created to raise money to feed the impoverished children of immigrant Irish Catholic families in the east of Glasgow. Today, the championing of the underdog is evidenced in the general support of Celtic fans for the people of Palestine, many of whom live under oppressive occupation by the State of Israel.

The stark reality is that the same cannot be said for some of the songs sung by Rangers fans. Loyal to the British/English Crown and establishment, many of the songs glory in perceived positions of power over others and of inflicting oppression. Even the familiar chant of “We are the people” is a reference to the belief that Protestants are God’s chosen people, with others – particularly Catholics – apparently existing as lesser beings.

The Billy Boys, with its reference to Protestants being up to their knees in fenian blood, surely needs no further explanation of why its singing is offensive, either in terms of a specific piece of legislation or the broader Breach of Peace.

As for the Famine Song: if the words contained reference to sending home Pakistanis, Jamaicans or Poles there would be no hesitation in designating it as a song liable to alarm, annoy or disturb the public. Scots Catholics of Irish descent deserve no less consideration in the yes of the law.

Anyone who has seen the Press TV documentary ‘The Football War’ will have noted the distinctly different contexts in which songs are sung by Celtic and Rangers fans. Scenes in the programme show Rangers fans belting out ‘Rule Britannia’, adopting and maintaining a belief in power exerted by the British State over other peoples around the world. Celtic supporters, meanwhile, are heard singing of self-determination and of people, particularly the Irish, being free to govern their own countries.

‘The Football War’ also shows one man explaining how Rangers supporters are proud to be British, going as far as describing Rangers as “the quintessential British football team”. The fact that the home of Rangers is in a country called Scotland appears to be a minor and ultimately forgotten detail.

In addition, in a scene filmed outside Ibrox, the documentary shows footage of British Union flags incorporating the Israeli ‘Star of David’. Apparently, Rangers fans’ outward expression for the idea of British imperialist aggression and dominance now also extends to support for like-minded right-wing oppressors.

Everything considered, it is easy to see why Scottish Government legislation attempting to cover all the bases and all the strands of possible offensive behaviour relating to football was likely to fail.

I still believe the SNP are due praise for recognising the problem and actually trying to do something about it. Perhaps, though, all-encompassing legislation was not the right move.

It could be that the answer was already available – Breach of the Peace applied with common sense.

Incidentally, the scene outside Ibrox in March 2012, where Rangers fans chanted of their “hate” for Alex Salmond and the SNP, was almost certainly a breach of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, but the police did nothing. Ironic, eh?

Campbell Martin is a former Member of the Scottish Parliament, activist and blogger. You can read more of his work on his website at

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