Ed Jacobs writes about the unity between all the Scottish opposition parties against the SNP’s anti-sectarianism bill, which they say is badly drafted.
The passing by the Scottish Parliament of the government’s plans to combat sectarianism in football have been roundly condemned by all opposition parties at Holyrood in an unpredicted show of unity.
The SNP administration’s offensive behaviour at football and threatening communications (Scotland) bill came after a series of parcel bombs were sent to a number of high profile Celtic supporters, most notably, the team’s manager, Neil Lennon.
Under the plans, which were formally approved by the Scottish Parliament yesterday thanks to the SNP’s majority, two new offences are established:
• “Offensive behaviour” – Intended to deal with sectarian and other offensive chanting and threatening behaviour likely to cause public disorder. The offence covers behaviour likely to lead to public disorder.
• “Threatening communication” – Intended to deal with threats of serious harm and threats which incite religious hatred.
The bill has attracted the support of much of the legal world, with Roseanna Cunningham, minister for community safety explaining:
The police and the Lord Advocate, the most senior law officer in Scotland, have asked for better tools to do their difficult job.
The issues we seek to address did not just emerge in the last football season. The status quo which allows poisonous songs of hatred to be sung at Scottish football matches or threats of serious harm to be posted on the internet has gone unchallenged for too long and cannot be allowed to continue. It is time to extract the poisonous hatred from Scottish football.
Banter and passionate support for football teams, even passionate opposition to other football teams, is the lifeblood of football – sectarianism and other expressions of hate are not.
The experts remain firmly behind this bill and Scotland must now show the courage of its convictions and take the action needed. Common sense must now prevail.
However, despite the well-meaning intentions of the bill, opposition parties at Holyrood have roundly condemned the handling of such a sensitive piece of legislation, outlining concerns about the way the SNP “rail-roaded” it through the Parliament without all party support.
The joint statement from Scottish Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independent MSP Margo MacDonald declares:
Members of all political parties are absolutely determined to wipe the blight of sectarianism from Scottish society.
It is of real regret that the first piece of legislation passed by this new Parliament has been railroaded through by the SNP. The SNP has used its majority to force through bad law that risks doing more harm than good. It sets a worrying precedent for this Parliament.
The SNP has failed to make the case for the legislation both in Parliament and out – with football fans, religious organisations, anti-sectarianism organisations, children’s charities, the Law Society, the Human Rights Commission, the Scottish Justices Association all raising genuine concerns with the SNP legislation.
We believe a far more effective response is to focus on education and young people, work with the churches and football authorities on positive, practical, evidence-based measures to tackle the root causes of sectarianism, as well robust application of existing laws.
The statement came as widespread unease was felt also that football fans wearing T-Shirts against the bill were banned from watching the debate.
In declaring the law to be “dumb”, columnist Iain MacWhirter has concluded in the Herald:
Outlawing the singing of songs at football matches seemed such a ridiculous proposition that initially I thought the Scottish government weren’t serious. That Alex Salmond just wanted to “send a message”, and that the loopier parts of this unnecessary legislation would be dropped.
And if not, MSPs would realise that such a law is as unworkable as it is objectionable. Surely, reason would prevail. It hasn’t.
Yesterday, MSPs in Holyrood passed a law that could make the singing of the national anthem punishable by a five-year prison sentence if it is associated with “offensive or threatening behaviour” in any context that involves football.
No-one knows exactly what “offensive and threatening behaviour” is, and anyway, because of the catch-22 drafting, the very singing of “sectarian” songs is itself deemed offensive. There is no list of proscribed songs because to compile one would invite ridicule – Give Ireland Back to the Irish – Paul McCartney?
This dumb law could also make the carrying of flags, colours or religious symbols illegal at football matches, in the trains going to football matches or in pubs or any public place where football is being shown. It could make singing The Sash illegal in a pub, but not in the street outside it. This is utter madness.
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• Should Northern Ireland football scrap God Save the Queen? – Ed Jacobs, December 13th 2011
• Anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland on the rise; all religious hate crimes up 10% – Kevin Meagher, November 18th 2011
• Labour: Anti-sectarian legislation is right in spirit, but flawed in execution – James Kelly MSP, November 7th 2011
• Sectarian Law will address “ugly element” within Scottish society – John Finnie MSP, November 3rd 2011
• Has racism returned to football? – Shamik Das, October 25th 2011