End of the football Act ‘doesn’t solve the problem’

Flashback to 2011, and a Celtic supporters' demonstration against the  proposed new football laws - which are now to be repealed in April.
Flashback to 2011, and a Celtic supporters' demonstration against the proposed new football laws - which are now to be repealed in April.

The writing on the wall for the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act etc has been there for all to see since autumn last year.

That’s when Labour MSP James Kelly successfully managed to garner enough Holyrood support to force its abolition.

This week he claimed the repeal of the laws was “a victory for football fans and for justice”.

The SNP Scottish Government has been forced to accept that the laws it forced through back in 2011 to tackle one of the country’s most intractable problems have been killed off by the will of parliament.

It’s a decision which hasn’t come a moment too soon for many voluble critics, both within football clubs and from the wider public.

Scotland’s most eminent historian, Sir Tom Devine, damned the Act as “likely to go down in history as the most illiberal and counterproductive act passed by our young Parliament to date”.

Often thought of as a measure designed mainly to tackle the poisonous hatred of some “Old Firm” supporters it nevertheless infuriated fans across the spectrum.

In Falkirk, the town’s own football club has decided to stay silent on the Act’s demise, returning a “no comment” answer to our enquiry whether the repeal is a good or bad thing.

Supporters’ representatives have been less reticent, with Jimmy Rae of Falkirk Supporters Club arguing that no legislation will work unless the authorities exercise fully the powers they already had before the Act was ever thought of.

“You can keep inventing laws to deal with this scourge (sectarianism) in our society,” he said, “but what it comes down to is a reluctance to take action - I can’t see things changing for a long time to come”.

Mary Gordon, of Cheerz Bar FSC, said: “We don’t have a problem - it’s older supporters we have on our bus, people you see every week and know well.

“Where they should be looking isn’t so much obvious supporters as the ‘casuals’ who don’t wear any team colours, or really support any team - they are often the real problem”.

But the Act isn’t a big talking point for any Bairns supporters she knows, and she says she doubts whether the repeal of the Act will make much difference to longstanding problems associated with sectarian elements of some teams.

Brian Stuart of Elliots FSC sums up the Act as having been “a waste of time”, a poor piece of legislation which caused a lot of confusion and anger without having any material difference to problem behaviour.

The complaints about the Act centred on the failure to specify in clear terms what was and was not offensive behaviour - which flags, which songs, what kind of acts could be construed as breaking the law.

It was also argued to be discriminatory, as only football fans were singled out as a problem which had to be dealt with - by an Act designed specifically to target only them.

However the SNP Government is dismayed by what it sees as a spectacular own goal by MSPs of other parties who chose to bin the Act rather than amend it.

East Falkirk MSP Angus MacDonald argues there was much more support for the Act than some accounts would have you believe, and insists it did cover aspects not addressed by previously existing legislation.

He told the Falkirk Herald: “I am extremely disappointed by last Thursday’s repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act, without any attempt whatsoever by the opposition parties to put an alternative in place, needlessly exposing vulnerable communities to sectarianism and bigotry.

“As a result there is now a gap in the law.

“The 2012 Act gave prosecutors powers that are not available under breach of the peace, section 38 of the 2010 Act or the Communications Act of 2003”.

He added: “YouGov held an objective poll of football fans and the wider public in Scotland which showed 80 percent support for the Act.

“The repeal of the Act, voted for by all the opposition parties at Holyrood combined sadly disregards the views of the majority of Scots.

“Any increase in sectarianism as a result of the vote in Parliament on Thursday will be on the heads of the 62 MSPs who voted to repeal the Act.

“Meanwhile the Scottish Government will continue to tackle sectarianism and hate crime by directly investing in community-based projects across Scotland, many of which have a strong focus on education.”

Others have argued that all the repeal amounts to is “back to square one” when it comes to dealing with sectarian and other hooligans who reheat ancient animosities on the terraces and spoil Scottish football for the majority of decent fans.

The opposition parties have killed the legislation, it’s claimed, but haven’t offered any solutions of their own about how rancid sectarian hate should be eradicated from our most popular sport.

James Kelly MSP said: “The SNP was wrong to use its previous parliamentary majority to bulldoze the Football Act through in the first place.

“The SNP should get behind every other party on this issue, scrap the act, and start investing in anti-sectarianism projects, rather than clinging on to its broken law”.

Mr MacDonald, however, is among those who will argue that while youth projects and the like should be encouraged they won’t answer the grim reality of a blatant and still unanswered bigotry at the heart of Scottish football.