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Back to the drawing board on bigotry ... and yes, I blame the jury

BY Friday morning, it had become a commonplace piety.

Dismayed or disgusted they may have been by the outcome of the Neil Lennon case, but individuals and organisations alike were careful to add the magic words: “We must respect the jury’s decision.”

Must we? So why’s that? It may be that there is no choice – for there is none – but to accept a verdict that stretched the meaning of bizarre. It may be wise, when feelings run high, to retreat behind formulaic language. But remove the word “respect” from the realm of legalese and it jars, badly. Another lawyers’ word sits better: perverse. I mean that in terms of what the world knows, and what it saw. I mean that in terms of the evidence led, and of the courses open to the jury. I mean that in the context of the behaviour – a letter of apology to Lennon, a conditional willingness to plead guilty to assault – of the accused, John Wilson, a 26-year-old Hearts supporter. There are London looters who must wish they had his jury.

I had similar thoughts on the language of the law while watching Paul McBride QC on Newsnight Scotland. He called the verdict – assault not proven, references to a sectarian remark and religious prejudice deleted – “completely and utterly inexplicable”. But that’s the trouble: for too many people in our miserable Scottish arena, the outcome is all too easily explicable.

Perhaps the jury members were confused by legal procedure. Perhaps they believed Wilson’s claim that he thought better of his mid-lumbering sprint and thereby slipped, thus only appearing to attempt to strike Lennon. (But watch the video, I suggest, and the sequence of body movements.)

Perhaps – presumably there was no perhaps about it – they further accepted the accused’s claim that he merely ran unprovoked at a stranger in a public place with the words “Lennon, ya f***in’ w***er” on his lips. Peter Croy, a G4S security manager at Tynecastle Park on May 11, was therefore mistaken when he believed he heard “Lennon, you Fenian bastard” after pinning Wilson to the ground.

That’s a lot of perhapses. Celtic supporters, and others besides, won’t believe a word of it. They will wonder what a charge of assault now amounts to. More than that, they will ask about the worth of our laws on religious hatred, above all section 74 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003. Wilson was prepared to plead guilty to assault and breach of the peace, it seems, but not to the “hate aggravation” accusation. The jury went one better.

In Scotland, too often, weird passes for normal. There are those who will tell you, for example, that Lennon is a magnet for trouble, that he rubs people up the wrong way, seeks confrontation, and provokes his rivals. Let’s say he does. So it’s his fault if he is set upon in Glasgow’s Ashton Lane – one of the mean streets – as Lennon was in 2008? He’s culpable for the “parcel bomb” plots, the bullets in the post, the death threats, and the fear inflicted on those around him? Was he standing provocatively, then, just where John Wilson fancied taking a quick jog?

Celtic and its fans are often accused of suffering from collective paranoia. The charge is accurate. The trouble is, the truth of the diagnosis too often falls squarely within the definition of the ancient joke: it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. The club’s core Glasgow constituency will draw only one conclusion from the decision of an Edinburgh jury. I struggle to think of any of the familiar sophistries liable to convince them otherwise.

The case has several meanings. One is that anyone who still denies the reality of “religious tension” in Scottish life is a liar or a fool, possibly both. Another is that our wonderfully well-intentioned laws designed to eradicate bigotry and prejudice are all very well: making them stick is something else again.

There may be a third meaning, involving a question. Is it wise to behave always as an embattled minority? Given the Lennon case, that’s liable to sound like a bit of a stretch for Celtic supporters and, by extension, for Scotland’s Roman Catholics.

I don’t mean “rise above it”, or some other useless platitude. No-one should – the old paradox – tolerate the intolerant. No-one should give up on their football club, either. But there should be a way to break the embrace, end the call and response. Bigots thrive on it.

A great many Celtic fans would respond, instantly, that they have been making that attempt for generations. They also resent the idea that there is some sort of equivalence – the pundits’ favourite excuse – between the bigots in their own ranks and the broader, deeper, institutional prejudices of Scottish life. They will take the Lennon case as exhibit A, and I don’t blame them. But when you bind your entire identity to a football club, that identity becomes vulnerable.

The argument won’t find many takers this weekend, I suspect. So I’ll quote – a rare enough event – Dr John Reid, club chairman, out of context. In response to perceived institutionalised unfairness towards Celtic in the Scottish game, Reid said: “Those days are gone.” It strikes me as an attitude with a wider application when bigotry and identity collide.

It won’t remedy the thought processes, if any, of an Edinburgh jury, however. Nor will it resolve an underlying problem: can “hate laws” ever be made to work? Even if they succeed in securing convictions, are they worth having? The idea that an offence such as assault is “aggravated” by a prejudice is peculiar in its own right. In the Lennon case, it might even have proved a catastrophic distraction. The notion of a thought crime is, let’s say, tricky.

Victims of racist attacks would disagree. Those who draft such laws would not only disagree, but point to the concept of aggravation: no-one has been tried – or not yet – just for harbouring an unpleasant opinion. Politicians would presumably add that standards of behaviour have to be set, that there is a difference between one drunk thumping another and a person being assaulted over perceptions of faith. I’m not so sure.

Anyone can hate and anyone can be hated: it is, if you like, a broad church. Laws based on acts and omissions at least keep things simple. What would happen if I got into a punch-up with an anti-abortion campaigner who claimed to be acting from religious belief, and I was found guilty of assault? Would I have also committed a hate crime? The idea is no longer implausible.

Where bigotry is concerned, we are heading back in the direction of the drawing board. Tinkering with jury selection or the not proven verdict won’t fix the situation. The trouble with the notion of a hate crime is that some people choose to hate, they like it, it shores up their shabby world, and fills their empty lives. For now, I’d simply take a crack at the judicial procedures that demand respect without challenge for a perverse jury.

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