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.