Anti-sectarian law must be enforced
— As the Scottish Government moves to toughen existing legislation, and the Church renews calls for a focus on anti-Catholic bigotry MICHAEL BRADY points out the need for enforcement by the police
IN last week’s article I mentioned the fact that there needs to be an acceptance of the existence of anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish racism as a major part of the sectarian problem in Scottish football and society, and that education is a key facet in tackling sectarianism. Recently re-elected First Minister Alex Salmond commented, on his first day in parliament last week, of the ‘parasite of sectarianism.’ He has also promised more robust laws to deal with bigots.
Given the criticism that has been levelled at the police in Scotland—allegations of a lack of knowledge of what constitutes sectarianism; claims of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish racism; perceived inflammation of tensions with comments in the media; and claims of a lack of transparency on arrests and fines related to sectarianism—the question remains: can we be confident that the police will enforce effectively whatever legislation MSPs pass?
Over the course of this football season, the police have been more vocal on the subject of arrests and fines with regards to matches involving Celtic and Rangers—the sole arena that the force appear to focus on with regard to tackling sectarianism.
After the so-called ‘shame game’ on March 2, which saw three Rangers players red carded, Celtic win 1-0 and a touchline spat ensue between Celtic manager Neil Lennon and Rangers’ assistant manager Ally McCoist, Strathclyde Police said that they had arrested 34 people inside Celtic Park itself, 187 people throughout the day for disorder offences, 40 people for domestic abuse and that they had issued 139 ‘fixed-penalty’ notices.
Shortly afterwards, the now infamous sectarian summit was convened amidst calls that Strathclyde Police was being stretched to the limit in trying to deal with the situation in an around Glasgow derby matches.
The problem with such figures is, first and foremost, that there is a lack of clarity as to whether they are all directly linked to sectarian behaviour. Also a mere 34 arrests inside a stadium with close on 60,000 spectators hardly points to a major problem. Perhaps the answer to the police’s seeming desire to highlight such figures comes from Les Gray, chairman of the Police Federation, who said: “We simply do not have the money and resources to do this.” He also went on to claim that Glasgow derby matches should be played behind closed doors or banned altogether.
With cuts to policing budgets (announced in the summer of 2010) perhaps the police’s focus is on self-preservation as opposed to tackling sectarianism?
This suggestion is given weight by the fact that when Celtic and Rangers met in the League Cup Final on March 20, the police, and indeed Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill, appeared to ignore renditions of the anti-Irish ‘Famine Song’ by thousands of Rangers supporters in their clamour to hail it as a ‘showpiece final,’ adding weight to the allegations that the police are, at best, ill informed on what constitutes sectarianism and at worst, simply ignoring it.
Critics alleged a prevailing attitude within the police force of ignorance of the problem, which is underlined by their attitudes to supposed ‘sectarian songs’ and again looking for sectarian parity, when none exists. When Rangers supporters sing a song calling for an ethnic group to ‘go home,’ that is an overt display of racism. Similarly when they sing of being ‘up to their knees in Fenian blood,’ that is an outpouring of religious bigotry.
Bizarrely, prior to the Rangers vs Celtic match at Ibrox in April, Chief Superintendent Andy Bates, divisional commander for Glasgow South and East Renfrewshire, in his promise to ‘blitz the bigots,’ brought Celtic supporters into the equation when he said: “If you sing Boys of the Old Brigade, we’ll arrest you… If you sing anything derisory about the Pope or the Queen, we’ll consider that an arrestable offence.”
Leaving aside the fact that on the second point—singing an anti-monarchist song would see singers such as John Lydon of The Sex Pistols and Billy Bragg arrested, the first point again suggests a lack of knowledge of what is and what isn’t sectarian.
Chief Superintendent Bates and his colleagues would have been wise to heed the outcome of a court case, in which Professor Tom Devine was called as an expert witness.
The accused in that case had been charged under Section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003, with committing a breach of the peace aggravated by singing Irish Republican songs, which mentioned, in their lyrics, the IRA, in much the same was as the Boys of the Old Brigade does.
However, the sheriff concluded that doubtless some members of the public might take offence at the songs being sung in support of an organisation, which the UK Government considered to be a terrorist movement. Nonetheless, he ruled that the IRA was a military organisation, was not sectarian in intent and that those who showed support for it, real or rhetorical, were not showing ‘malice or ill will towards members of a religious group.’
“To my knowledge, little of this case was reported in the press, which is a pity because its results have significant legal implications as to how Scottish law officers and the police respond to fan behaviour at these matches,” Professor Devine said.
The equality group Celebrate Identity, Challenge Intolerance was also critical of the police in this regard. It commented: “From an equality perspective, there are no reasons whatsoever for supporters attending football matches to be arrested for singing this particular song, or any other patriotic songs that are a reflection of legitimate pride in one’s cultural, national or ethnic identity…the song Boys of the Old Brigade is a legitimate song relating to nationhood.”
In light of the fact that Queen Elizabeth II, on her state visit to Ireland last week, laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin for the IRA members who had fought in the War of Independence, the police’s grasp on what constitute sectarian singing seems tenuous at best.
However, this is not the only area where police could benefit from better education and understanding of the sensitivities regarding sectarianism. Another field that needs work is the media.
Before the Rangers vs Celtic match on Easter Sunday—April 24—Strathclyde Police Chief Constable Stephen House suggested that the combination of alcohol, sun and a bank holiday could make the derby match the ‘perfect storm,’ for violence.
“It is a bank holiday, it’s the last meeting of the season—which is crucial for the result—and the weather forecast is hot,” he said. “That means people will be drunk and they will get injured or raped, assaults go up and so does domestic violence. We do not see the clubs as the enemy. We do not blame Celtic or Rangers for the violence.”
Despite the disclaimer at the end, the chief constable would have been better advised to omit the reference to Celtic and Rangers or just not made the comments at all, as they do, to an extent, place blame on both clubs.
Les Gray fared little better. In a radio show he seemed to suggest that people who have pictures of the Pope in their homes are, in some way, responsible for the continuation of sectarianism. When he was contacted on his position, his comments continued to highlight a lack of clarity on the issue.
“The Pope is the head of the Catholic Church and his image can be quite rightly displayed in people’s homes or wherever without an inference of bigotry or anything else,” he said. “I was referring to the minority of people who hijack images of his Holiness, the queen and other figures and display them in a fashion to taunt other people, in particular Old Firm fans.”
Yet, the display of pictures of the Pope or indeed the queen in someone’s house is surely a private matter and not an attempt to taunt anybody.
Education is a key facet in terms of tackling sectarianism, and given that the police are charged with this important task, providing the forces in Scotland with a clear focus must be a priority.