By Patience Magill
The controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act may be one of the first victims of the SNP’s failure to retain its Holyrood majority, as opposing parties signal their intention to make it the first piece of devolved legislation to be repealed.
The 2012 Act — introduced hurriedly after the so-called “shame game”, a cup tie between Celtic and Rangers in 2011 — has been criticised relentlessly by various parties and football fan groups as being wrongly targeted and clumsily implemented. Fewer than 80 convictions were achieved last year.
Parties opposed to the Act — Conservative, Labour and Green, outnumber the SNP 65-63 at Holyrood, and all three have signalled their willingness to support its repeal at an early stage of the new parliament. Some SNP MSPs are also known to be against it, but it remains to be seen whether the party will allow the forcing of a vote. The option remains for the SNP to propose either a new Act, or at least certain amendments to the existing legislation.
Opponents argue that the Act represents a “sledgehammer to crack a nut”, and that existing criminal law should suffice. Police Scotland, who seized on the aftermath of the “shame game” to press for a new law, argued that existing legislation such as that covering “breach of the peace” was not enough. They believed that the Act would stamp out signing of offensive songs and other “sectarian” behaviour associated with football.
The “shame game” saw three Rangers players sent off for indiscipline, 35 arrests and an unseemly fracas involving Celtic manager Neil Lennon and Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist. The clubs, police and Ministers had a “crisis summit”, spurred by a media outcry, and the new legislation was the result.
The law has its faults, not least in the failure to define “offensive behaviour” and whether or not juries can determine which actions are “sectarian”.
This was underlined in the trial of John Wilson, a Hearts supporter from Edinburgh who ran onto the trackside during a match at Tynecastle stadium and assaulted Lennon, live on TV and in front of thousands of spectators in the ground.
Wilson pleaded guilty to breach of the peace and was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment accordingly. However, the assault charge was found not proven because the jury was not convinced by evidence to support that part of the charge which accused him of committing the act while making a sectarian remark.
Defence advocate David Nicolson had told the jury that Wilson had been willing to plead guilty to breach of the peace and assault if the sectarian element of the charges had been deleted, but the Crown would not accept his plea. The jury of seven women and eight men deleted the reference to making a sectarian remark from the charge relating to breach of the peace, and that the offence was aggravated by religious prejudice.
Labour James Kelly has attempted to have the Act repealed in the previous Parliament. The Conservatives made its repeal part of their manifesto.
It is less clear whether the opposition parties will support the replacement of the Act with new legislation covering sectarianism. Opponents say the act is too narrowly aimed at football, and that it ignores the broader issues of sectarianism in society.