The end of the Scottish football season is approaching, and with it a review of the notorious Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act.
It has been over two years since the bill received Royal Assent and became law, but it has been criticised at every stage of its existence.
The legislation, plugged by First Minister Alex Salmond and the SNP at the time as the answer to eradicating sectarianism from Scottish football, met cross-party opposition in Holyrood.
Even after the third stage of the legislative process, the amendatory phase, the division in parliament was clear: 64 for, 57 against.
Police officers and academics have also questioned its utility.
An ex-matchday commander with Strathclyde Police told how the role of police at a Scottish football match has shifted in the wake of the Act "to looking for offensive behaviour instead of ensuring fan safety—what we're meant to be there for in the first place."
Professor of political history and the politics of sport at Queen's University Belfast, Graham Walker, who gave evidence to the Justice Committee criticising the legislation when it was in its earliest form, criticised the SNP for essentially forcing through the legislation.
He added that their reaction "lacked comparative perspective, a sense of proportion and a basic historical knowledge of Irish influences in Scotland."
Perhaps more importantly, however, is that fans recognised it for what it was: A knee-jerk reaction—purportedly in response to the very legitimate problem of sectarianism—which unfairly criminalised football supporters.
It’s not that the principle behind it is particularly contentious; no right-thinking member of society could argue nothing should be done to challenge the dissipating, but nonetheless still prevalent, sectarian attitudes in Scotland.
What is difficult to concur with, however, is the motive behind it.
For the decision was the archetype of bien pensant, reactionary politics—like when the Conservative Party tried to convince the nation they were really raging environmentalists all along by changing their party symbol to a small tree.
It is style and point-scoring over substance.
It is what they believed the public wanted to hear, rather than what needed to be done; it suited the headlines, but not the issue.
And so Scottish society got a weak-titled victim’s charter; one which allows an almost fully subjective definition of the word “offensive.”
Here’s a statistic: According to the Scottish Government’s own review of the act—intended to “eradicate sectarianism,” lest we forget—after its first full year of existence, 259 people had been charged. Only 39.6 percent of those were with offences relating to religion.
Here’s another: While it is true that Celtic and Rangers fans are more likely to be arrested under the legislation than supporters of any other club, the most offences surrounding one single match involved neither. That dubious honour goes to Hamilton v Falkirk on January 5, 2013, when 23 charges were brought.
Of course, the typical response from the government is that it was not they, but the police, who wanted new legislation. Indeed, a spokesperson for the Scottish Government's Community Safety Unit said just that:
The Act was introduced in response to calls from Scotland's police and prosecutors who told us they wanted tougher powers to crack down on sectarianism and other offensive behaviour associated with football matches.
That is not wholly untrue—the general secretary of the Police Federation, Calum Steele, told the Justice Committee during the consultation process that the majority of Federation members considered the offences created by the legislation would be "useful additions to Scots law."
However, he also said that some of the members felt, like the fans who protested in the streets of Glasgow while the legislation was still in its formative stage, that existing powers were already substantial enough to deal with any behaviour surrounding a football match.
Minister for community safety, Roseanna Cunningham, has previously rubbished any talk of an early review, insisting that two years in was the correct time to evaluate its effectiveness.
Whether she meant two calendar years or two full football seasons, that time will have elapsed when the final whistle blows in the Premiership play-off final between Hamilton and Hibernian on Sunday.
Perhaps the best thing an SNP government looking to win the trust of a swithering portion of the electorate before September’s independence referendum could do, even at this late stage, would be to admit their error, abolish this unpopular and unneeded law and let the matchday police return to the job they are there to do: ensure fan safety.
All quotes obtained first hand, unless otherwise noted.
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