Last Thursday all eyes were on the Scottish Parliament as James Kelly’s attempt to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act reached its final stages.
The Bill was passed 62 votes to 60, signalling the end of the deeply illiberal legislation with only SNP MSPs voting to retain it. I am in no doubt that all politicians in Scotland want to see an end to sectarianism, but it is a bold, or arrogant, government that believes it alone has the answer.
Since devolution, there have been various cross-party attempts to tackle the issue, but when Alex Salmond decided to go it alone with the OBFA, he ignored legitimate concerns raised by opposition parties and people outside of politics and used his majority to force it through.
The result was poorly drafted legislation that has arguably caused more harm than good. When the country’s political leaders are bitterly divided by controversial legislation, there can be little chance that same legislation will successfully heal divisions in our communities. If we are to have any hope of tackling sectarianism and intolerance, what we need most of all is unity. It is on this front that The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has failed miserably on so many levels.
It is an ‘othering’ of working-class football fans by the state. Neatly wrapping up a deeply complicated issue and pretending it exists only within the 90 minutes of a football match. It set a deeply worrying precedent by criminalising behaviour that takes place in some contexts but not others. Attending, travelling to, or sitting in a pub watching a football match and engaging in behaviour deemed to be offensive by an observing police officer – even if there is no one else present to be offended – could see you charged under the legislation but, engaging in that same behaviour whilst attending, travelling to, or sitting in a pub watching a rugby match would not.
It is nonsense to suggest – as some in the SNP have – that police do not otherwise have the powers to act. A man singing a sectarian song at 2am in a residential street in Rutherglen could not be charged under the OBFA but there is no doubt that police would be able to arrest and charge that man under other legislation such as Breach of the Peace.
The Act has undermined trust in the rule of law, destroyed relationships and careers, created tensions between fan groups and police and has ultimately failed in its objective to tackle sectarian behaviour in Scotland. Criminalising football fans is not the answer, we need to stop pretending sectarianism is just a football problem and start properly funding grassroots anti-sectarian programmes that have been cut back by the SNP Government.
Thursday’s vote was a victory for common sense and for football fans and it is thanks to the effort and determination of James Kelly MSP and the tireless campaigning of fan groups such as Fans Against Criminalisation who have fought against this injustice from the start.