Holyrood must axe offensive behaviour at football law

AXE THE ACT: the ugly scenes that followed the recent Scottish Cup Final were all offences covered by existing legislation in relation to crowd control and common assault – they make no case for the retention of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act

by Liam McLaughlin • With the Holyrood election now over, and the hurt of a bruising night for the left and progressive forces involved with the pro-independence campaign of 2014 starting to dissipate, one significant silver lining can be taken from the make up of our parliament for the next five-year term.

There’s an inbuilt majority against the only act ever to pass through the Scottish Parliament without any form of cross party support—the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act.

Railroaded through the parliament in the months following the SNP majority win of 2011, the Offensive Behaviour Act was the SNP and Police Scotland response to a series of incidents surrounding football and the targeted and bigoted campaign of bombs, bullets and threats to the lives of prominent Celtic supporters and staff as the underlying anti-Irish racism that still exists in large parts of the West of Scotland bubbled over into media limelight.

The act however was deeply flawed from its inception, sold on a pack of spin and deceit that it was brought into force to deal with sectarianism in Scotland, despite the word sectarianism failing to appear in the entire legislation and existing laws already covering aspects of sectarian and religiously motivated bigotry and hatred.

In practice, the Act in fact criminalises anything upon which a “reasonable person” would deem to be offensive.

This can range from non-discriminatory political expression like declaring support for a united Ireland, to as far as a fan at a match swearing in the crowd towards opposing fans or players.

To draw the act to its (il)logical conclusion could see both sides of the debate on upcoming EU membership or the Scottish Referendum of 2014 brought through the courts for airing those views at or in the vicinity of a football match.

The scope of the act is so wide and unspecified that there doesn’t actually have to be anyone reporting to be offended in order for a conviction or charge to be brought, and the term deemed an offence does not actually have to be at a football match but can be on the way to a game or even in a pub that happens to be showing the match.

Anyone associated with the footballing world or the fight for the protection of civil liberties since its inception will testify to the long lasting damage the Act has caused in the relationship between largely working class young football fans and how they view the newly centralised, aggressive and unaccountable police force and also the wider justice/legal system in this country.

With an upcoming private members bill seeking to repeal the Act, it can only be hoped that this illiberal, deeply flawed legislation is killed off once and for all and that there shall be no need for a Fans Against Criminalisation campaign next season.

At the time of writing however, Voice readers will be aware of the aftermath of the recent Scottish Cup final and the dreadful scenes which accompanied the final whistle which has reportedly seeing players and staff of Rangers FC assaulted on the pitch.

Let me be clear that these scenes are embarrassing and shameful for Scottish Football, but let us also be clear they make no case for the retention of the Act.

These events occurred with the Act in place, and were in fact all offences covered by existing legislation in relation to crowd control and common assault.

A much deeper analysis, particularly for those of us in the socialist movement must take place to attempt to draw wider conclusions and answers to the age old questions of why working class people’s relationship with football is so often an emotional release from the strains and pressures of everyday life in austerity Britain and why our relationship as a nation with alcohol is so deeply entrenched and so fundamentally damaging.

In the 17 years since our parliament’s inception, the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is the single worst piece of shoddy, short term and deeply damaging piece of legislation to be enacted from inside its walls. The upcoming months give us a chance to blow the final whistle on the Act and re-evaluate our entire strategy in the fight against bigotry, sectarianism and anti-Irish racism which still exist in modern day Scotland and which scars our great nation so profoundly.

A problem I believe that education, inclusivity and community building will solve, not short term, flawed legislation dreamt up and forced through in the aftermath of an election.

It’s time to #AxeTheAct and lead that fight.

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