Protempore: The Game of Shame Bill

Posted by in October's Magazine

Morning readers. Would you consider yourselves to be reasonable people? Are you easily offended? Well whatever side of the offensiveness fence you find yourself on (enough F’s in there for you?), you might be interested to know (as if you didn’t already) that the Scottish Government is currently trying to put a Bill through the Parliament with the express aim of cutting out offensive behaviour at football matches in Scotland. Now there’s been a fair bit of confusion as to what the legislation is actually trying to eliminate from our national game and the media is partly to blame for this. No sooner had the Bill been introduced following what the newspapers politely termed ‘the game of shame’ between Celtic and Rangers in March, the media pounced on it and called it ‘the sectarianism Bill’. assic case of ‘them and us’; all you have to do is decide which side you’re on.

Now while this is understandable given that politicians use the term frequently when discussing the legislation, the simple fact of the matter is that the terms ‘sectarian’ or ‘sectarianism’ are not defined in Scots law and it follows that you can’t legislate against something that has no meaning. And while many commentators think that the legislation is focussed solely on particular songs and chants that can be heard at various football grounds across Scotland, nothing could be further from the truth. If you attend games and find yourself going purple in the face and screaming at opposing fans about their proclivity for getting a bit too close to livestock, you could find yourself up in front of the beak. Read on.


In short, the Bill provides for two new criminal offences: offensive behaviour at a football match and threatening communications. I’m not going to go into detail on the latter of those two as it hasn’t been particularly dealt with in any great depth by politicians or focussed upon by the media which is pretty worrying in itself but if you’re prone to getting drunk and posting hateful messages on the internet in the dead of night, be prepared for a visit from plod.

Now then, offensive behaviour at football matches. What does that actually mean in the context of the Bill? Well, briefly, three elements must be established for a conviction to be secured: (a) offensive behaviour; (b) the behaviour occurs in relation to a regulated football match; and (c) the behaviour is or would be likely to incite public disorder. But what is offensive behaviour? Well, while the Bill outlines a number of examples of such behaviour, the most worrying is the potential catch-all of section 1(2)(e) of the Bill, which states: “any other behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive”. And this is where the trouble with definitions of ‘sectarian’ and ‘offensive’ is likely to kick in.

Rangers v Celtic
For example, would a reasonable person find it offensive for Celtic fans to sing The Boys of the Old Brigade at Ibrox? Is it a sectarian song? For those of you who aren’t familiar with the song, it’s a ballad about the Easter uprising by Republicans in Dublin in 1916, which was a precursor to the war of independence between 1919 and 1921. The song celebrates the struggle for Irish independence from British rule and includes celebratory references to the IRA. Now, you may well be asking, what has that got to do with football? The answer is nothing. It’s about history, identity and politics. Similarly, is it offensive for Rangers fans to sing The Sash my Father Wore at Parkhead? Could that be perceived as a sectarian song? Again, for those of you not familiar with it, it’s a Northern Irish folk song that describes battles won by the Orangemen of Ulster. The lyrics include references to the siege of Derry in 1689 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

These days the Battle of the Boyne is seen as a sectarian conflict, Catholic against Protestant, marked in particular by the Orange Order in celebrations of Protestant power in Ireland. But the true situation at the time was far more complex and in the context of a Rangers v Celtic game, the detail of history is lost, particularly in this case as the army of William of Orange contained a large number of Dutch Catholics. But again, the song has absolutely nothing to do with football and is about history, identity and politics, however convoluted that all might be in reality. Neither of these songs contain explicit references to religious hatred but are perceived by some football fans as deliberately provocative. But does that mean they should be the subject of the criminal law when they’re sung at football matches?

Well, that’s a difficult question. Songs and chants that are downright poisonous and intended to incite disorder should be banned and any moron caught spouting them should face the full force of the law. But when the law is weak and dependent to a large extent on semantics and interpretation, there is a danger that some fans will end up with a criminal record for expressing nothing more than a strongly held identity.
And ultimately, who will decide what is offensive and what is sectarian? Well, for the time being, I’ll leave that up to all you reasonable football fans out there.

– Protempore

Illustration: Bernie Reid

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