As some of you might be aware, when I’m not writing about football I like to blog on politics, and at the weekend there, I released a magazine on the subject for my site Comments Isn’t Free.
When the Charlie Hebdo attacks rocked the world last month, I wrote a big piece on free speech, defending the rights of people to say, sing or write anything they like, without limits and without restrictions at all.
To me, that’s an article of faith, something I believe in religiously. Free speech is the most important of our freedoms, because without it, the rest wouldn’t matter a damn as the government could do what it liked with them and we’d be unable even to protest.
Lately, this is a subject that gets me into trouble, because one of the things I’m doing online right now is aggressively promoting the election of as many SNP candidates to Westminster as possible, and I’m often asked how I square with that with my vociferous opposition to the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, to which I devoted fully one third of my free speech piece.
It’s quite simple, really. I’m not a single issue voter; I consider more than just one plank of the party platform before I put a cross on a ballot paper, and right now we’re faced with a ghastly choice of horrors.
Only one party which stands a chance of holding the balance of power down there wants the things I do.
That answer doesn’t go down well with some people, people who’re happy to bang the free speech drum as long as they like what the other person is saying. I find it a bit rich when they try to denigrate my view by hiding behind that, and it’s caused more than a few arguments.
Why am I telling you this? It’s simple, really.
I can’t get to the point of this article without covering the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act first, because it’s the elephant in the room.
For the record, it’s a disgusting piece of legislative over-reach that should never have been put on the books. Unlike some people, I do not regard it as an anti-Irish or anti-Catholic law – indeed, a large number of Sevco fans have been charged under it, along with supporters of Hibs and Hearts – but on almost every occasion that it’s been used against Celtic fans those prosecutions clearly fall under the rubric of attacking political expression.
That makes it even more scandalous and indefensible.
Let me elaborate on that for a moment, and why it’s important.
For one thing, this law accomplished precisely nothing that other, existing laws, couldn’t have done fairly easily and comfortably. When Sevco fans, who sing stuff like The Famine Song and The Billy Boys are prosecuted under this law, they might just as easily have been charged under a ream of legislation that was already in place. Those legislations were specifically created to tackle hate speech, and those songs certainly qualify.
Celtic fans singing about Ireland would not have been prosecutable under those laws, which is part of the reason many of our supporters believe the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was created in the first place. As I said, I think they are wrong … but it is a dangerous law nonetheless and one with which needs to be repealed at the earliest opportunity.
With that said, I can tell you that even writing about this makes me highly uncomfortable, because I’m forced to defend things I abhor.
There seems to be a lot of anger amongst Celtic fans tonight about the SPFL’s decision to take no action in relation to the League Cup semi final. I understand that anger, and I agree that the decision reeks of cowardice.
But you know what? It’s for the best, and I’m coming down on the SPFL’s side. I hate that too.
This nonsense about removing politics from football has had its day, and it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s UEFA or FIFA trotting out that hypocritical line or if it’s the SPFL and the Scottish Government.
Equally, I find the notion that people should have some right not to be offended to be ridiculous. The world doesn’t work like that. If you start introducing it in football stadiums, how long before no songs are being sung at all?
How long before the scoring of a goal becomes problematic? Players aren’t allowed to properly celebrate them anymore, so that’s not as farfetched as perhaps it at first sounds.
The SPFL could have taken action today, and many people are going to say they should have.
For months now we’ve heard about how “Scotland needs the Celtic – Rangers game”, and without going into all the various arguments surrounding Sevco, to all intents and purposes the world thought that’s exactly what it was watching.
And you know what? The deplorable behaviour of the Sevco support was a shocking, embarrassing, throwback to a dark era which makes Scotland look like a laughing stock and makes the media hype look demented, because it was.
This game is everything our society can do without, and that does make the SPFL’s decision today seem absolutely ridiculous.
Furthermore, as I’ve said, I disagree with the Offence Behaviour at Football Act on the basic principle that it criminalises free speech.
But right now, like it or not, it’s the law of the land, and the SPFL are today saying that they’re perfectly alright with the law being broken.
Amongst the songs sung by the Sevco fans were a number that appeared on the Police Scotland press release of “unacceptable” ones … and whilst I have some sympathy with the argument that the police couldn’t very well have arrested 10,000 people, the SPFL were, and are, in a position where they can take action against clubs who’s fans engage in mass criminality.
They haven’t, and so yes, that decision is cowardly.
Here’s the problem though.
Had the SPFL decided to take action today Celtic fans, who didn’t break the law, would have ended up in the dock with the Sevco supporters who did. If there’s one thing Scottish society understands it’s this “moral equivalence” crap that says both sides are as bad as each other. Try as they might, a lot of people can’t shake it. They see no difference between anti-Catholic singing and songs about the Irish war of independence.
Normally, I wouldn’t give a monkeys about opinions based on such ignorance, but this is Scottish football, where the governing bodies only go after Rangers and Sevco if they’ve got no other choice or if they can find a way to drag Celtic into it to.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. We know full well that’s what would have happened.
There are people reading this who probably think both clubs should be hammered. I have no doubt about that at all, and as difficult as it is for some people to wrap their heads around the idea that sectarianism at football games should be tackled by the courts is supported by, according to recent opinion polls, nearly 90% of the population in Scotland.
Many people do believe we’re as bad as each other, and trying to argue the toss with them does no good whatsoever. Those people, like many of us, would rather the so-called “Old Firm game” was never played again.
We have more in common with those folk than they would like to admit.
They can’t wrap their heads around how Celtic fans feel mostly the same way.
So today, fellow Troops in Hoops, be careful what you wish for. The SPFL has decided there’s no case to answer, and as grisly a picture as that paints of Scotland – a country where genuine bigotry and sectarianism is the accepted norm – I can’t even pretend to come down on the other side of the case, because first I support unrestricted free speech and second because I know that even if we’re operating according to the “letter of the law”, whether I like it or not, that law is written in such a way that we would certainly have ended up in the dock too, although our fans did nothing wrong.
The vagueness of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is one of the many, many things wrong with it. It’s too open to interpretation.
I honestly, genuinely, hate writing about this subject because I know full well I’m going to upset nearly everyone, but as a writer that’s part of the job description and I can’t lambast the media for not speaking out when I’m self-censoring.
I find much of the media reaction to this decision to be scandalous and inconsistent. A very few of our journalists – like Ewan Murray – get pass marks because although I disagree with them in principle, they, at least, were demanding action from the day of the game itself and thus have earned the right to call this decision a joke.
Others are just leaping onto a passing bandwagon, after years of silence on the issue.
Anything to have a whack at an easy target.
I despise the sectarian filth that inhabits parts of this country. They embarrass us, they paint a picture of our society which is badly skewed and their hate is as catching as a deadly virus. I wish to God they could be educated out of their arsehole views … but whilst they hold those views I’ve got no choice but to defend their right to express them.
I don’t like the way a small section of the Celtic support can’t get a grip of itself either, in particular those who thought it was alright to disrupt the last Remembrance Day silence with a “protest.” The right to unrestricted free speech carries responsibilities too, and they gave no consideration to the club or to their fellow fans, which is just disgraceful.
I also wish to God so-called neutrals would get over their irrational tendency to lump both clubs together in the same cesspit. It is intellectually dishonest and lazy, and it makes enemies out of people with whom many of them actually have common cause.
Political expression is what it says on the tin, and whether you like it or not is irrelevant.
If you ban The Roll of Honour you’re going to wake up one day and find yourselves unable to sing Flower of Scotland. If you’ve not wised up to that yet, this is the time to start.
Today’s decision was a fudge. We all know it. But it was a necessary one because once this can of worms is open there’s no closing it. When we start punishing clubs for the songs fans sing we are well and truly on the slippery slope … and it only goes one way.
I’m glad this article is finished. Defending the rights of trash who sing The Billy Boys is exhausting and makes me want to take a shower. Defending the SPFL for lacking the balls to actually separate songs of hate from songs commemorating a revolutionary struggle is infuriating and makes me want to hit something hard.
Today’s decision is the right one, for the wrong reasons. It casts a dark shadow on the game here, but that was the inevitable consequence of all the hype that surrounded this fixture, and which a lot of us felt deeply uneasy about beforehand, knowing this was coming.
Thank God for Raith Rovers knocking Sevco out of the cup.
Thank God for the incompetence of Ally McCoist, Kenny McDowell and the Sevco board.
I am no hurry – Scotland is in no hurry – to go through this shaming experience again.
This is a horrible place to live at times, because a small minority insist on keeping it that way.
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