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.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin,

    I actually agree with you. When you consider that someone who physically attacked Neil Lennon in front of a tv audience of millions can walk free from a courtroom, whereas an idiot spouting bile in his bedroom goes to prison, it has to be said that current legislation is not working. This proposed new bill will only make that worse.