Published on 2 October 2013
The latest in a recent spate of football fan cases to see a courtroom has sent some heads shaking in disbelief.
Paul Clark, 30, was given a 12-month Football Banning Order for making a ‘gun gesture’ at an Old Firm game in 2012. It wasn’t Georgios Samaras but he might want to watch himself while FoCUS are around.
Instead, Mr Clark now has his name splashed across news reports and finds himself slapped with a football thug tag.
Along with singing about the IRA, making a gun gesture may well be offensive to many people but when a Government introduces legislation – the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act – that turns the offensive into criminal, society is on very dangerous ground.
The Scottish Government’s hurry to appear tough on ‘sectarianism’ in the aftermath of the Old Firm ‘shame game’ in 2011 has led to worrying events.
The kettling of 200 Celtic fans attempting to mount a peaceful protest walk to Celtic Park in March was particularly notable. I was one of their number – along with my 72-year-old father – and the only journalist to witness what happened.
A police force of at least equal number showed up with horses and batons to deal with fans young and old who were staging a protest in opposition to the Scottish Government legislation and highlighting alleged police brutality.
Countless pictures and videos taken by a smartphone-savvy crowd showed an excessive response to a peaceful march and even Al Jazeera reported on the incredible scenes. Fans were left stunned, angry and isolated.
Furthermore, the criminalisation of Celtic fans for singing political songs as a result of the legislation has only served to give the songs a brand new relevance.
The debate about IRA chanting in the Celtic fan base is no longer about whether it’s appropriate or not – a position the debate had at least moved to before the Scottish Government gate crashed the conversation – but about the legal right to express political views and, importantly, cultural and ethnic identity.
The Scottish Government has delivered a whole new importance to those political chants and the standoff is at its strongest in years.
Much of the Celtic support in Scotland hail from Irish roots and the right to express that Irish identity is fundamental.
But those football fans now have a genuine and justified fear that their civil liberties are under serious threat and they have good reason to be alert.
If an interview with Scotland’s Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland in June was anything to go by, peaceful, law abiding citizens in Scotland who hold Irish Republican politics might want to call a lawyer.
On the day the Scottish government released its latest hate crime figures – which revealed 268 arrests had been made under the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act – Mr Mulholland admitted in a national television interview that an Irish Republican identity was “potentially” criminal.
Mr Mulholland was asked specifically by STV reporter Bernard Ponsenby about an Irish Republican identity.
In his response, Mr Mulholland confirmed what many from an Irish cultural background have insisted for months, years; holding an Irish identity in Scotland – particularly in Glasgow – is a problem.
“It depends on the facts and circumstances, that’s the point I’m making,” he said. “Irish Republican identity is potentially criminal under this Act, yes.”
Saturday’s scenes at the Ibrox Armed Forces Day fuelled fears among Celtic fans that the policy of football fan criminalisation is connected to identity.
British soldiers danced and did ‘the bouncy’ as the crowds at Ibrox gloried in the death of Bobby Sands when just weeks earlier a Celtic fan was handed a criminal conviction for singing Roll of Honour, a song commemorating Bobby Sands among the 1981 Hunger Strikers.
Those from the greener side of Glasgow were confronted on social media with images of British soldiers posing with scarves displaying slogans about keeping Ulster Protestant, prompting George Galloway MP to take to Twitter to warn voters that a vote for independence would leave the Irish Catholic minority in Scotland outnumbered and unprotected from the “proto-fascist savages associated with Rangers”.
This is not, and never could be, just about football.
While the SNP asks Scotland for a Yes vote on independence, the perceived campaign of oppression against football fans with political views and a cultural identity that may not be to the liking of the SNP government shows no sign of ending.
To underestimate the strength of the resulting fear and anger would be a mistake for the SNP administration and any notion that it will simply blow over shows a costly disregard of the cultural roots and influence that football in Scotland represents.
The ‘shame game’ brought international media attention and Salmond’s government – to use the fitba vernacular – shat it.
This badly framed legislation was rushed through on a moral panic by an embarrassed political elite and now there are political careers riding on a law that is unfair and unworkable. The very concept of the act is at variance with democracy.
Scotland already had legislation capable of dealing with racism and bigotry at football grounds or anywhere else in the country. For example, the Famine Song was ruled racist at the High Court in Edinburgh in 2009 before Salmond’s new law was even thought of.
What the new law achieved was an “evening up” exercise where Irish Republican expressions were criminalised. A feature of the Salmond regime is that they are never wrong and never, ever make mistakes. Subsequently, football fans are criminalised to save Wee Eck’s blushes.
Is this the Scotland that Mr Salmond wants me to vote Yes to?
Did El Hadji Diouf unwittingly create Salmond’s Poll Tax?
Get it fixed, Eck.