Silencing sectarianism: football’s free speech wars
Oh, father why are you so sad
On this bright Easter morn’
When Irish men are proud and glad
Of the land that 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 and a favourite of some of my friends back home in Belfast. But, very soon, singing this song at a Celtic or Rangers game or posting it on an online message board for fans could land you in jail for up to five years, thanks to one of the most draconian pieces of legislation ever drafted.
According to the Scottish Parliament, the new Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, ‘aims to tackle the recent issues affecting Scottish football’. This refers to the 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 listening to Roseanna Cunningham, the minister in charge of the Bill, it becomes clear that the laws are much more about criminalising words and behaviour than locking up those who packed bullets into envelopes. What is deeply shocking is the way Cunningham casually flits between parcel bombs and ‘offensive’ football chants in interviews as if there was no distinction between the two. Yet, if approved, this law will bring in five year maximum sentences for these ‘chants’ and any other behaviour by football fans deemed to be threatening, abusive or offensive.
What remains unclear is which 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 at the Scottish Executives gives cause for alarm. 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 given that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’; there could be interesting debates in Scottish court rooms over which of the traditional Irish songs are narrowly sectarian.
Ironically the laws are likely to ratchet up antagonism between fans. I believe that these laws constitute a victims’ charter, which invite fans to take offence. Campbell Corrigan, Strathclyde assistant Chief Constable, who is charged with policing the new laws, has refused to list the chants police will classify as sectarian, but suggests that fans can define offence themselves: ‘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.’ Not surprisingly, fans on both sides at Old Firm games have already started spying on rival fans and reporting offences, while uniformed police have promised to walk through the terraces with cameras filming fans during games. It is hard to see how these intrusive laws will make football games a better experience for anyone.
No-one would describe Old Firm games as being like a polite tea party and sensitive souls should really choose another sport if they want to stand quietly in polite company. But the idea that Rangers and Celtic fans are so fragile that they cannot tolerate rival chants and songs for a ninety minute football game is ludicrous. The irony of these new laws is that they are presented as a way of ridding our terraces of religious intolerance, but it is actually political leaders who are showing greater intolerance. Such is the demonisation of Celtic and Rangers fans by the political class that it is now acceptable to describe the fans as hate-fuelled bigots, wife beaters and parcel-bombers-in-the-waiting. One national newspaper columnist welcomed the news that police will walk though games like this: ‘They will film the morons as they spout their sectarian filth… and beat the bigots who stain the game’.
It has been left to these much maligned football fans to articulate the case against the illiberal laws. At last week’s Celtic and Rangers games, fans unfurled banners with a new set of slogans including ‘Let the People Sing’, ‘We will not be silenced’ and ‘Singing songs does not make us criminals’ – and thousands of fans from both persuasions have signed the petition launched by newly-formed free speech group ‘Take a Liberty (Scotland)’.
This week, First Minister Alex Salmond responded to the fans’ spirited defence of free speech by warning that football in Scotland would be finished if sectarianism is not tackled. But it is Salmond and his allies who are destroying Scottish football. These laws are undemocratic, unenforceable and not needed. They have brought the policing of people’s words and thoughts to an unprecedented level. They will increase tensions between Celtic and Rangers fans and they are only possible because football fans have been demonised and criminalized by an establishment that has shown breathtaking intolerance of behaviour that does not conform to their prescribed norms.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Kevin Rooney is the head of social science, Queens’ School, Bushey. He is chairing and producing the Battle of Ideas debate Silencing sectarianism: football’s free speech wars on Sunday 30 October.Tagged in: Alex Salmond, Boys of the Old Brigade, Celtic, football, football fans, football hooliganism, opinion, Rangers
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