News and Opinion From a Team of Young People

Football and the Law: Are the SNP Criminalising Football Fans?

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In 2012, Scottish Parliament hurried through the Offensive Behavior at Football Act as a knee-jerk reaction to the so-called ‘Shame Game, a particularly toxic derby between Celtic and Rangers in which 34 arrests were made. Since the bill’s conception it has faced fierce opposition from within Holyrood and from football fans themselves.

A history of migration between the west of Scotland and Ulster has meant that Glasgow has the sectarian undertones of Belfast with less frequent outbreaks of violence. Without going off on a tangent about the nature of the political and social landscape of Glasgow and Ireland, it is important to understand the volatile relationship between republicanism and unionism in modern Scotland.

The bill set out with the aim of eradicating sectarianism from Scottish football and although the sentiment is good, the execution has been abysmal. Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill defended the bill and pointed out that 84% of arrests made under the bill resulted in convictions and that Scottish football was better off as a result of the bill. In reality what the bill achieves is blanket assessments of what is sectarian, removing supporters’ right to freedom of expression and sledgehammer policy which creates a tense relationship between ordinary fans and police.

Despite their differences, there is consensus between fans of the two Glasgow clubs that fans should be allowed to sing. There are now a list of songs which are banned, some of which can be justified due to obvious sectarian undertones. Some songs that have been banned are either a prevention of celebrating culture or just downright comical.

As mentioned above, this was a knee-jerk reaction by the SNP and the kind of sledgehammer policy used to win votes. It’s a lazy approach to genuine problems with Scottish society. In West Scotland there are divisions between nationalists and republicans – we’ve seen the issue move away from religious divide and more towards political ideology. There is a large feeling of victimisation in the republican community that they are under attack and in a city where politics and football goes hand in hand, this feeling moves into the terraces and legislation which directly criminalises football fans only adds fuel to the fire. Rather than educating the public, the law seeks to lock people up and ban them as quickly as possible.

I would be the first to support Police Scotland and I accept that coordinating football matches can be a massive task, but the answer is not to shift power towards them in such a way that it creates distrust between the citizens and officers. Things came to a head when an unofficial protest march led by supporters’ group the Green Brigade and Fans Against Criminalisation ended in 13 arrests after fans were kettled. Obviously the march was unauthorised and therefore dangerous but it gives a harrowing insight into the relationship between football fans and police. There should be no need for supporters to feel the need to hide their identity when entering a stadium for fear of being caught on camera.

It is difficult to tell which way this matter is going. The SNP appear to want to push things further and put facial recognition into all grounds in Scotland. Obviously this would be a further affront to the rights of supporters and would further lead to people hiding their identities, only making policing harder. There is, however, a consensus between opposition parties that they would try to repeal the bill. Since the conception of the Scottish Parliament, there is yet to be a bill repealed and with the SNP currently running a weak minority government this may be seen as the perfect opportunity for supporters to regain the right to freedom of speech and no longer feel under attack when attending a game of football.

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