Thursday, 27 October 2011

Guest Lines

London-based teacher and civil liberties campaigner Kevin Rooney recently contacted Fans Against Criminalisation to offer his support to the campaign. His libertarian views may not be something we all agree on but we're happy to publish Kevin's thoughts on the Stephen Birrell case and the proposed new legislation. It's food for thought for fans and politicians alike.


Stephen Birrel doesn’t like Catholics, he doesn’t like Neil Lennon and he doesn’t like Celtic supporters. Not that unusual in certain parts of Scotland, but what is unusual is that last week Birrel was jailed for saying so. His crime was to join a Facebook page and share his unpleasant views with the rest of us:

“Hope they all die. Simple. Catholic scumbags. Haha.”
“Proud to hate Fenian tattie farmers”.
“They’re all ploughing the fields, dirty scumbags. FTP…”

And there was more in that vein. It’s not recommended reading and despite the lure of Facebook no-one actually has to read it. This guy is not a pleasant individual and obviously not likely to turn up on many  lists of people we would most like to have dinner with. But no threats were made, there was no incitement to commit acts of violence and Birrel did not actually harm anyone. Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you. He was effectively shouting nasty names at Catholics from the safety of his bedroom. Sad... yes – but a crime? Well these days – yes . Birrel was sent to prison for eight months and banned from attending any football games in the UK for five years after being charged with ‘religiously aggravated’ breach of the peace. In short, a religious hate crime. 

This prosecution and others like it are taking place even before the new Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland)Act is passed by the Scottish parliament -  a law that if passed will introduce prison terms of up to five years for offensive chanting at football games or communications on the web.

The idea of sending someone to prison for expressing their personal hatreds seems bizarre in a society that claims to allow freedom of speech, but in the frenzied atmosphere being whipped up around the new laws, a judge  sitting in a Scottish courtroom feels emboldened to dole out prison sentences for name calling that are on a par with violent assualt.  Even before the new and much anticipated offensive behaviour law comes into force we already have the criminalisation of words and thoughts in Scotland.

And nor is Birrel the only victim of this draconian new mood. Last month my nephew Brendan travelled all the way from West Belfast to see his beloved Celtic play only to be arrested while entering the ground for shouting ‘Up the IRA’, a slogan still found on many gable ends in his home town.   Brendan was held in prison all day and overnight before being charged with ‘religiously aggravated breach of the peace’.  The addition of ‘religiously aggravated’ turns a chant that has been normal behaviour for a section of Celtic fans at games for many years into a serious crime with serious consequences.  

And then there are those Celtic fans whose banner  mentioned the ‘huns’, a term used by Celtic fans (and even some Rangers fans) for many years to describe the Rangers football team and its fans. A term that has been criminalised in the rush to label every expression as a symbol of sectarian hatred. These fans have also been arrested and charged with a hate crime – a case that has been postponed several times leaving the fans unaware of their fate.

For months I have warned that politicians are using the controversy around the targeting of  Neil Lennon to blur the distinction between words and deeds in a way that is a serious threat to free speech and civil liberties.  But few champions of civil liberties have taken to the streets – finding the principle of free speech apparently easy to sacrifice when it comes to uncouth football fans who upset their liberal sensibilities.

Some Celtic fans have also taken issue with the attempt by politicians and the authorities to lump a range of football chants and slogans under the headline ’sectarian’.  A great new organisation, Fans Against Criminalisation, has gone to great pains to point out that many Celtic songs are not sectarian but political. They are right – whether it’s traditional Irish rebel songs in support of a United Ireland or the ‘Up the IRA’ slogan that landed my nephew in jail – these ‘communications’ are not anti-Protestant but anti-British rule in Ireland. 

Of course my defence of a nasty bigot like Birrell will be hard to take for some.  And of course his sentiments are different to someone singing a political song.  But it is vital that all fans join together to defend the principle of free speech. The reason that we are in this situation today is that we have allowed Celtic and Rangers fans to be criminalised and demonised in the most extraordinary way over many years. I don’t like anything Birrel says or represents but like Voltaire I defend absolutely his right to say it without being locked up and branded a criminal. If Celtic fans accept the treatment of Birrell or worse still if we call for the arrest and prosecution of rival fans, then we invite these laws to be used against all of us.

Alex Salmond can now claim the dubious distinction of presiding over one of the most authoritarian and illiberal pieces of legislation in Western Europe. Anyone who remotely cares about basic civil liberties should howl with rage at the imprisonment of Stephen Birrell and should stand up now to defend free speech and the right of football fans to be offensive whether on Facebook or at Ibrox or Celtic park.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Fans Against Criminalisation will be holding our first public demonstration against the Bill in Glasgow's George Square on Saturday, 29th October at 12.30 (assemble 12 noon).

George Square is the historic seat of civic government in Glasgow and has been Scotland's place of protest for a century or more. In 1919, the military were deployed to break a mass protest outside the City Chambers while more recently it has been the rallying point for Poll Tax and anti-war protests. 

It is now time for Celtic fans to unite and show Alex Salmond that, like the Poll Tax was for Thatcher, the unnecessary, unworkable and discriminatory Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill could be his downfall. Come along and support Fans Against Criminalisation and send Salmond and co. the message that we will not be criminalised. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Fans Against Criminalisation Launch Statement

A new campaign group, Fans Against Criminalisation, has been formed by Celtic fans to campaign against the first part of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill.

Following the so-called ‘Shame Game’ last March, the police and the Scottish Government called Celtic and Rangers to a summit to discuss a range of societal problems they claimed football was responsible for. Since then, the ills of society have been laid at football’s door and football fans have been blamed for everything from sectarianism to drink-fuelled domestic abuse. The government and a hitherto compliant Scottish media have portrayed the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill as ‘anti-sectarian’ legislation.

The reality is, however, very different from the political rhetoric.

There is very little criminality at football matches – indeed, there has been no serious disorder in a Scottish stadium for over thirty years. The very small number of offences committed inside Scottish football grounds is a symptom of the nation’s wider problems with alcohol and bigotry, rather than a cause.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill does not tackle any of the nation’s problems. As a range of bodies from the Law Society to Nil By Mouth argue, there are existing laws that ably tackle sectarianism and other hate crimes. Instead, the proposed new legislation criminalises football fans for being football fans. The new law applies only to us and leaves football fans all over the country liable for arrest and imprisonment. Justice Minister Roseanna Cunningham suggests fans may be arrested for anything from making the sign of the cross to singing a national anthem. A whole range of acts routinely carried out by fans at football matches could be considered ‘offensive’. Any fan arrested under this new legislation will likely be subject to the nightmare of a football banning order and numerous court appearances before their case is even heard. Those convicted can be sentenced to 5 years imprisonment.

As Celtic fans, we have even more reason to be fearful about the Bill, given Justice Committee Chair Christine Graham’s view that the law should be seen as an ‘evening-up’ process, allowing the criminal law to capture Celtic fans as well as those of our city rivals.

Rather than any serious policy debate, the Scottish Government has instead engaged in political grandstanding. Football fans have barely been considered or their views consulted as Alex Salmond tries to accelerate the Bill onto the statute books.

But fans will no longer remain silent on the issue and our voices must be heard. The Green Brigade’s recent protest at the Inverness match was given huge backing by the Celtic support and has been followed by similarly well-received protests at other grounds. It now also seems that other commentators and members of civil society are starting to see through the Scottish government’s rhetoric and realise that the Bill is a poorly crafted piece of legislation that is both unnecessary and undesirable.

Fans Against Criminalisation will not allow the ills of Scottish society to be laid at the door of football fans, or football fans to be treated as second-class citizens, subject to a ludicrous law that applies only to us. We will not stand idly by as fan culture and football fans are criminalised. Over the coming weeks and months we will be mounting a campaign against the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill.

You can help support the campaign and keep up to date with news and events by following us on twitter (@FACKilltheBill) and on facebook(

Fans Against Criminalisation