Some will have you believe Scottish football, and the Scottish media as a whole, has…
Last Thursday, something took place that could affect thousands of football fans across Scotland. MSPs gathered in Holyrood for a vote where it was narrowly decided that a law, introduced by the SNP in 2012, should be repealed. The law in question was the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA) and its abolition should be celebrated by fans all across the country.
The act was passed six years ago as the SNP attempted to respond to mounting public pressure. They had to be seen to be doing something to tackle sectarianism in society. The 2011 ‘Shame Game’ Old Firm, death threats to high profile fans and Neil Lennon’s received bomb threat all occurred within a few months of each other as the government decided action had to be taken. It was decided that football fans were the primary cause of this behaviour and that the most effective means of combating sectarianism was to cut it off at football grounds, where society’s sectarian tendencies tend to manifest.
First off, it’s important to point out that this is simply untrue. An independent study referenced during the debate last Thursday studied the percentage of sectarian crimes that occurred at football matches and discovered two crucial findings. One, that the figure of around 10% was much lower than many thought. And two, it was certainly lower than the public perception of it.
Here’s the problem. We’ve got a piece of legislation that targets a specific group of people to be charged with crimes that 90% of the time have nothing to do with that group. This is what made OBFA so controversial – if you were identified as a football fan, then you could be more severely punished for an offence. If thousands of fans were singing something sectarian, then the police would scapegoat a dozen or so of them and throw the book at them. But the rest would remain unpunished. After all, you can’t arrest an entire crowd.
The SNP clearly hoped the 2012 Act would act as something of a deterrent towards sectarian behaviour, but it just meant that those who were charged under the act were unfairly punished while the vast majority of those involved in the offensive behaviour remained utterly unpunished.
Not that it even mattered. Politicians opposed to the act – which was every MSP who doesn’t represent the SNP – repeatedly pointed out that the legislation itself was totally unnecessary. An independent commission found that legally speaking, the act added nothing to the law. Any offence that could be charged under the act could already be charged under existing legislation. Put simply, if the 2012 act was removed, then anyone charged with a sectarian offence would still be charged. It’s just the law under which they’re charged that would change.
This is an important point. The number of people prosecuted under OBFA has decreased in three out of the last four years. The only year it didn’t was in 2016 when the Scottish Cup final was marred by ugly scenes after the game. This means that the Crown Office, when deciding what legislation to charge an individual under, increasingly looked to pre-existing legislation. This highlights the lack of faith the prosecution service had in the act – if it had been well written or fair, it would have been used far more often. It’s as simple as that.
However, there is a bigger issue here than the practical aspects of the law. If we know that football fans can be disproportionately punished then it begs a question: how are the police identifying an individual as a football fan?
Under the wording of the act, the description was worryingly broad. It covered not only fans at a ground but also those travelling to and from games, as well as punters watching matches on TV at the pub. It meant that any football fan, anywhere in Scotland, was immediately treated with suspicion and thus more likely to be unfairly targeted. Some politicians even said it branded football fans as second-class citizens.
This is the crux of the matter. Ultimately, it’s about civil liberty. OBFA gave the police the opportunity to treat football fans as suspects first and citizens second and classed anyone in the vicinity of a football broadcast as a fan. It added to the stigma that football fans are unruly, shifting the blame onto them instead of tackling what is an issue found throughout society. The implication that football fans are entirely responsible for Scotland’s sectarian problems is insulting, dangerous and downright wrong.
So when OBFA is officially removed from Scottish law after the repeal is granted royal assent next month, be glad. Those exhibiting sectarian behaviour will still be charged – but they’ll get a fairer trial, without the pointless persecution of millions of innocent, well-behaved football fans. It might not feel like it yet, but last week’s vote should go down as the best result of the season.