Failed Football Act was never going to rid our nation of its sectarian stain

I was eight years old before I learned I was a Catholic.

We went to Mass every week and the crucifix that stared down at me from above the blackboard at St Monica’s Primary School was something of a giveaway. But that just meant I was a Catholic. What was this Catholic thing all about?

I first heard the word cawed in ugly wonder at a friend’s house while his cousin was visiting. She seemed aloof from our engrossing debate on the merits of the red Power Ranger over his green rival — ugh, girls… — and peered inquisitively at me, as if mentally fitting and unfitting pieces of a jigsaw. Then, without warning, she came out with it. The Coatbridge Icebreaker. The Lanarkshire Litmus Test. ‘What school do you go to?’

‘Eeeewwww!’ she shrieked at my response. ‘That’s a Catholic school!’ It was as if an air raid siren of social awkwardness had been sounded. The grown-up talk cratered to silence, cups of tea clattered and sloshed as adults fell over themselves to hush up the mouths of babes.

Apologies were extracted and hollow ‘Where do they pick up these things?’ murmured and it was so eagerly agreed that everyone should go home that my friend’s mother tried to harry him out the door before realising they were already home.

Heading for the exit has long been Scotland’s answer when the issue of sectarianism is raised. The subject makes us uncomfortable, angry, ashamed and we will do almost anything to avoid discussing it. It is this dread reticence that brought us the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA), which took another step towards the legislative scrapheap last week when Holyrood’s justice committee voted for repeal.

The OBFA was rushed through parliament in 2012 after a series of rancorous fixtures and despite warnings that it was poorly drafted, illiberal, and potentially ineffective. As it turned out, the Act’s critics were right: It was poorly drafted. Offensive behaviour didn’t have to occur ‘at regulated matches’ but merely ‘in relation’ to them, extending the scope of the law to journeys to and from fixtures and even pubs where the game happened to be on TV.

As well as making it criminal to incite public disorder — something that was already criminal — the Act made it an offence to ‘express hatred’, ‘stir up hatred’, behave in a way motivated by hatred, engage in threatening conduct, or act in a manner that could be deemed offensive.

The terms were so broad as to make enforcement haphazard and inconsistent and Police Scotland has even admitted that there is no definitive list of banned songs. It all comes down to how a police officer interprets a chant and whether he thinks a reasonable person would be offended. The result has been to foment tensions between police and supporters and put young men who sing an obnoxious song at risk of criminal conviction and with it potentially the loss of their job and reputation.

Lesson learned: Bad headlines make bad law.

I am not a football fan. I couldn’t tell you what’s offside, what’s onside, or what side that wee man with the whistle is supposed to be on. I struggle to understand people whose identity is bound up in the folk wisdom of Jock Stein or the philosophy of Bill Struth and the gallant pioneers. And those who glory in conflict from the safety of time and distance of the Irish Sea I regard as cowardly voyeurs of human misery, wallowing in other people’s victimhood. There is no roll of honour for vain pretenders.

And yet I favour a full repeal of the OBFA, which is what Labour MSP James Kelly’s Bill would do. Why? Because the Act’s conflation of threatening behaviour, incitement and offensiveness is ill-conceived and dangerous. Because a statute that makes certain actions a crime but refuses to specify those actions is caprice with the force of law.

Because, however much I despise the bigots and their baneful dirges, I cannot accept that the state should decide which songs may and may not be sung and where. I take much the same view of Orange walks — I strongly disapprove of them but I disapprove of a bullying state even more. As the US Supreme Court once noted, overturning a protestor’s conviction for a profane slogan on his jacket, ‘one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric’.

Still, this is not as clear-cut as either side would have you believe. You might balk at the policing of Old Firm songs but in repealing the OBFA wholesale, you remove incitement to religious hatred and hatred based on sexual orientation as specific offences in Scotland. What then? By instinct I prefer as few laws as possible but I doubt many of my fellow repealers are as dogmatically libertarian.

Something those of us who oppose the Act have never fully contended with is why it enjoys such high public support. The mob love nothing more than a good ban, we tell ourselves. The Act is thought of as something that affects only the Old Firm and what a foul lot they are. Each as bad as the other. Hell slap it into them.

But supporters — and those baffled by the rush to repeal — have a more nuanced and more compelling case. Fans want to take their children to matches without fear or trepidation. Many who have never set foot in a soccer stand disdain bile-drenched chanting as a social pollution that seeps out from the stadium and poisons the country as a whole.

Advocates of free speech have not convinced their opponents on these matters. They should try harder. The only responsible path to repeal is one that emphasises the continuing social opprobrium towards sectarianism. It is, thankfully, much less widespread than it was when I was quizzed on my schooling a quarter century ago.

Where it remains, it should be subjected to the force of public contumely, its practitioners educated and shunned where education is impossible. We should make clear the kind of modern Scotland we want and those who prefer to live in the past should be left behind. Let the Orangemen march, let the people sing and let the rest of us get on with our lives.


At risk of ruining her reputation in Nationalist circles, I find myself continually impressed by the SNP’s Kate Forbes. She is hard-working and passionate in the best sense — principled but never at the expense of civility — and seems willing to work with opponents to get things done.

Her latest campaign, Final Straw, aims to rid our environment of the scourge of plastic straws. These tubes take up to 500 years to decompose, pollute seas and coastlines, and can be fatal to marine wildlife. The Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP is to be commended for championing a cause that may not be sexy but will have a positive and lasting impact.

There is still much more to do, as I learned when I popped into my local Lidl last week and found them selling ‘Naked Onions’ — onions peeled and rewrapped in plastic. How wasteful and socially irresponsible. Someone needs to shame supermarkets into packing in their harmful plastic addiction. Sounds like a job for Kate Forbes.


The US government has shut down after Congress failed to agree a funding deal. Now hundreds of thousands of public workers will go without their salary, including soldiers, food safety inspectors, and health department staff. Of course, one group of federal employees will still get paid: Congress. Politics is the mafia with better suits and fewer scruples.

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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at Feature image © Ian Burt via Flickr by Creative Commons 2.0.

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One thought on “Failed Football Act was never going to rid our nation of its sectarian stain

  1. Another good article. I have lived in Manchester for 50 years and what I liked best about England was that nobody cared what your religion was. Jordan Peterson getting me to think again about the nature of religious belief and it’s importance.


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