A final report on the visit by FAC to Holyrood

Published on Tuesday 30th April, 2013 by Celtic Trust

John gives his extended reflections on the discussions of that day

I discuss the parts of the meeting that interested me the most and I offer some reflective comments:

  • We were told in unequivocal terms that the Bill is about tackling ‘sectarianism’. FAC members argued that existing legislation already deals with ‘sectarianism’ and that the first part of this Bill (the non-communication part) was therefore unnecessary if ‘sectarianism’ was the target. For example, the 2003 Criminal Justice Act (section 74) states an offence has occurred if it was “aggravated by religious prejudice” and this is defined in the 2003 Act as being “ill-will based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a religious group, or of a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation”. Why introduce a new Bill to target sectarianism when the 2003 Act deals with it already? There have been plenty of examples where ill-will based on membership or presumed membership of a religious group have occurred and could have been dealt with under existing legislation. A new law was not required – just implement the existing one properly! 

 

  • As was pointed out to the MSPs by FAC members, ‘sectarianism’ is not mentioned once in the whole Offensive Behaviour Bill. This is not a minor point and it is my belief that it is entirely deliberate. There are some behaviours – largely linked to expressions of support/sympathy for political ideologies – that the Government wishes to criminalise but which are not ‘sectarian’ in the way this term is understood and used in Scotland (expressing hatred/intolerance towards an other due to your belief in their religious affiliation). It was suggested by a member of FAC that the Bill enabled the sectarianising of political expression of football fans (Celtic fans in particular and other fans in general who express sympathy/support for political ideologies the government doesn’t like). It was suggested this was a primary reason for this new Bill and for the ambiguous and undefined use of “offensive behaviour” rather than “sectarian” within the careful wording of the Bill. I believe this is the main justification for using the deliberately vague and open to interpretation phrase in the Bill (1.2e) “other behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive”. Christine Graham’s ‘equalling the arrests’ comments were noted as further evidence of this apparent determination to sectarianise some forms of political expression. FAC members were keen to emphasise that the Bill was impacting on non-Celtic supporters too and this was widely acknowledged.

 

  • An SNP MSP suggested that even if the existing legislation did deal with sectarianism, this new Bill would allow us to see the different types of criminal behaviour in more systematic ways enabling a more detailed breakdown of the offences (nature, place, religion targeted etc). Yet, the current figures and facts surrounding existing cases appeared to be unavailable even to the MSPs. But surely the detailed facts and figures of existing laws could be managed more effectively without introducing a new Bill? 

 

  • The SNP members were unable to define sectarianism adequately and quite clearly struggled. It was then mentioned by one of them that the Bill was also designed to prevent crowd trouble. There is a careless (and deliberate) attempt to seamlessly weave hooliganism and violence in with political expression* at football, conflating the two in the minds of the Scottish public. This is likely to increase the public’s support of a Bill that they believe will reduce violence and hooliganism. There is no significant evidence to justify such simplistic and misleading connections being made and we should resist at all times such untruths being peddled.

 

  • One of the SNP MSPs tried to defend the Bill by informing us that it “targets anti-Irish racism”.  Interestingly, the other SNP MSP disputed this as a reason for the Bill. There was a collective gasp of exasperation in the room at this point. It is spurious to suggest the Bill was introduced to protect the Irish diaspora in Scotland. But it is wrong to overlook the fact that the Bill does (in theory at least) protect the rights of minority national and ethnic groups like the Irish in Scotland. Two points can be noted here:
  1.  The Bill does target anti-Irish racism. Or as I prefer to view it, in theory, the Bill protects and enshrines the rights of others in Scotland to have and practise a non-Scottish national identity and to have a non-Scottish ethnic background without others expressing or stirring up hatred as a consequence. Fans and the police need to be made fully aware of this and its implications for the way the Bill is interpreted and implemented. For example, Section 1.2a and 1.2a(iii) of the Bill states a crime has occurred if the behaviour is “expressing hatred of, or stirring up hatred against, a group of persons based on their membership (or presumed membership) of… a group defined by reference to a thing mentioned in subsection (4)”. Now in subsection (4) it clearly states the groups to be “nationality (including citizenship)”; “ethnic or national origins”. In other words, this is asserting a person’s right to freely practise their ethnic, national and citizen identities without fear of hatred or hatred being stirred as a result.
  2. People in Scotland disparaging Aiden McGeady and others like him might, therefore, in some circumstances, find themselves in breach of this part of the Bill. But crucially, this also makes it more problematic for the authorities to prevent expressions of Irishness through singing of Irish national songs and flying of such flags (where these acts can be shown to be part of ‘our’ national identity, ethnicity or national origins).  Wouldn’t it be perverse to have a Bill introduced partly to protect the national identity and ethnicity of a group only for this group’s actions and behaviour in expressing these identities to be interpreted as illegal? Talk about giving with one hand and taking way with the other…….

Summary: there appears to be increasing realisation that this Bill is unworkable and ill-thought out. I predict some form of evaluation to occur and feedback before the current timeframe of August 2015.

* Of course it is only the political expression that the mainstream parties do not like rather than political expression per se.

 

 
 

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1 comment
 
Tom Minogue says:
2016-01-13 09:12:48
 

Well done Jeanette and Paul for putting the case for review of OBAFM.

As good as Jeanette was Kenny MacAskill was bad. What a bitter man he is.

 
 
 

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