Saturday, 15 June 2013

Ponsonby's triumph and Mulholland's shame

Yesterday was in interesting news day.  We had the publication of the statistics for charges/convictions under the Offensive Behaviour Act and on Religiously Aggravated Crimes in Scotland for 2012-13.  STV news gave the issue a 2nd top billing on the 6pm news, the justification for which, when the interview with the Lord Advocate came on, became immediately apparent.

By now most people will know that, Bernard Ponsonby the veteran Scottish newsman put the following question to the Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland:

BP:   'So-called political chanting falls foul of this law?'
Lord Advocate: 'Of course it does yes, as I understand it'.

Ponsonby follows this up by asking about 'Irish Republican Identity' and asks:

BP 'An Irish Republican identity is potentially criminal under the Act?'
Lord Advocate:'Potentially criminal under this Act, yes'

This comment is extremely important and congratulations to Bernard Ponsonby for asking the question when other, lesser, journalists would not.  It is not that this was an utterly mad comment from Frank Mulholland that he must feel like a complete clown for saying - although it was and he must.  Neither is it that you could actually be arrested for having 'an Irish Republican identity' whatever that might mean, because quite clearly you could not be arrested, or charged or convicted for having any kind of ethnic or political identity.

The really important thing about it, whether or not any Scottish citizen, journalist or political commentator chooses to acknowledge it, is that it is an open admission (probably of an extremely common albeit almost subconscious mind-set) that there is something dangerous or wrong or potentially criminal to be Irish in Scotland or to believe in a united Ireland.

If you were to replace the word 'Irish' with any other nationality, the question would have been treated with a bemused look I would suggest.  If you were to change the word 'republican' with a description of any other political position, then a similar response would have been forthcoming.  It is only those two words - that ethnic identity and that political position - which almost without thinking, elicits concern, suspicion and negativity from many Scots; certainly from the police and from many part of government and other institutions.

This brings us back to the Act.  This Act, very clearly, was never about sectarianism; because, quite rightly,  we already had laws to cover that and to cover other forms of bigotry and racism.  This was, and still is, about trying to extend the term bigot or hate crime to the expression by Celtic fans of republican views or (except in a very sanitised, commercially-exploitable way) their Irish identity, should they as individuals, or as a group choose to do so.

For that reason it has not worked, because much as they would love to be able to do so, the government simply, in a modern, European country, cannot criminalise ethnicity or political ideology.

So all that has happened, and their own statistics show this, is that those people who could have been convicted under the Section 74 offences (justifiably), have instead been convicted under the new Act.  Indeed, the Celtic Trust was told by McAllister of the FoCuS group that the police were instructed by the Crown Office to use the new Act, so that is what they have done.

However, despite their best efforts to get Celtic fans convicted of singing Irish republican songs, the Sheriffs have, to their credit, refused to do it. Not satisfied with this, the Crown Office under Mr Mulholland (with Alex Salmond working him from the back like a ventriloquist) is appealing two of these Not Guilty verdicts.  You may be interested to know that appeals are very, very expensive processes and that the Crown Office usually appeals one or two cases a year and usually in case of very serious crimes such as murder or rape.  Yet they have two appeals under way right now because the Sheriffs had the temerity not to convict young boys for singing the Roll of Honour.

So, well done Bernard Ponsonby but shame on you Frank Mulholland.  You are a disgrace to your office and if you are remembered at all, it will be as the most craven Lord Advocate ever to have held the post.

Friday, 14 June 2013

New Offensive Behaviour Statistics released today - embarrassing flop for the Government

The Crown Office under the Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland and the Scottish Government represented by Roseanna Cunningham have released the statistics for the first full year of the operation of the Offensive Behaviour at Football: Threatening Communication Act 2012 tomorrow (Friday 14 June 2013).  For some weeks now they have been making robust claims that these statistics will show that the Act is working. 

We are currently producing a detailed analysis of the statistics which are far from impressive in supporting the case for the continuation of this piece of legislation.  However, we can say already that all that has effectively happened is that there is a fall in those convicted under the Religiously Aggravated Offences (Section 74) and an almost equal rise in those convicted under the Offensive Behaviour Act.  Not much return on the £1.8 million pounds allocated to the Football Coordination Unit Scotland who police this Act.

In addition to this, what the statistics will never tell us, but which we as football supporters are only too aware of, is the following:
  • The number of young people with no previous criminal record or activity who have come into contact with the police as a result of this Act
  • The smaller number of young people who have endured 3 or more trips to courts in all parts of Scotland only to have the charges dropped by the Crown or to be found Not Guilty
  • The number of young people who have had their details taken unlawfully by the police
  • The number of football fans of all ages who have to run the gauntlet of police officers in order to attend football matches which are entirely devoid of any crowd trouble and have been for decades.
  •  The number of football fans of all ages who are photographed, videoed, monitored and intimidated by the Football Co-ordination Unit Scotland, the recipient of £1.8 million of government funding, all spent on harassing private citizens because they happen to be football fans.

This is the human cost of the Offensive Behaviour Act however, a press conference will be held in Glasgow next week in which we will give a detailed analysis of the figures produced by the government as well as the stories behind the statistics, which illustrate how this Act has produced a style of policing about which all citizens should be concerned.

Leading lawyer Paul Kavanagh, of Gildeas Ltd said today:

There is an old saying lies, damn lies and then statistics.

While every right minded individual would agree that there is no place in Scotland for bigotry of any kind whether by race, colour or religion the success of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication 2012 introduced by the current administration raise interesting questions.

87 convictions, how many arrested? How many proceeded to trial? How many pled guilty without legal representation or advice? How many with no previous experience of the judicial system? What has been the cost of implementing the act, policing it etc?

How do we measure success? Do we measure it with regard the number of convictions? Do we measure it with regard the huge number of young football fans forced by police unlawfully to give them their personal details? Do we measure it by the decreasing number of football fans attending games or do we eventually measure it by taking a poll of young football fans and their voting intentions at next year’s referendum and whether they will vote for independence?

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Investigation into police interference in FAC parliamentary lobby continues

A small number of representatives of Fans Against Criminalisation visited the Scottish Parliament in April.  A few days before departure one of the organisers was phoned at work by the police to ask what the arrangements were for the visit.  On the morning of the visit, the group were approached in George Square by two uniformed officers just prior to departure to Edinburgh and told 'we will wait for you coming back'.  At the Parliament itself the group were met by 2 officers as they left their coach and a further 4 or 5 officers outside the door of the parliament who were clearly waiting for them.  We are advised by MSPs that this is an unusually high police presence even when there are groups of citizens visiting Parliament.

This follows on a very heavy police and security presence at our last visit to the Scottish Parliament on the day the Offensive Behaviour Bill became an Act.

Siobhán McMahon MSP, who invited us to Holyrood in April, met yesterday with the Head of Security in the Parliament, and asked for an explanation for the police presence both inside and outside the building and the heavier than normal security.  The reply?  She was told that these arrangements were in place because the Police Service of Scotland has specifically requested them.  Further evidence, if any were needed, that the the police in this country have a very specific and negative agenda in relation to Celtic fans and their organisations in general and against Fans Against Criminalisation in particular.

Superintendent Andy Bates in response to a letter from Siobhán McMahon asking about the behaviour of his two officers in George Square, tried to imply that it is normal practice to approach relatively small groups in the Square and ask if they are 'alright'.  Leaving aside the fact that this is utter nonsense, it is now becoming very common for individuals associated with this campaign to be approached in a variety of circumstances - in the street on a Friday night; in a pub watching a match, travelling in Europe, attending bedroom tax rallies - to be approached by officers to ask if they are 'alright'.  Is it just us, or does that seem odd to you?

We have been repeatedly told over the last couple of months that the Crown Office is going to publish statistics which will show us that the Act is working.  We look forward to seeing those, although if the ones already released under question by the tireless Ms McMahon are anything to go by, they will have a hard job using those to justify this level of intrusion into the entirely legitimate, lawful and democratic activities of private citizens....even if they are Celtic supporters!