The conviction yesterday of Trevor Muirhead and Neil McKenzie for sending parcel bombs to Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, two other high-profile supporters of the club and an Irish republican organisation, is a reminder of how deep the dangerous tentacles of sectarian bigotry reach into pockets of Scottish society.
Once again, football provided the background to the expression of this hatred but the crime had nothing to do with the sport. The victims were chosen because, in the perpetrators' confused minds, their association with Celtic could be linked to Irish republicanism, and their high profile in public life would guarantee headlines.
In recent years there have been persistent attempts to curb the malign influence of sectarian prejudice. Religious hatred has been an aggravating factor in crimes since 2003. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act, which came into effect at the beginning of this month, has been controversial because of the difficulties in applying the legislation.
The plot to send parcel bombs to intimidate and injure the recipients may have been conceived as an expression of sectarian hatred but would not have come under the terms of the Act. Equally, there was no evidence that the specifically religious beliefs of any of the victims were a factor in Muirhead and McKenzie's actions. Fortunately, the amateurish nature of the devices posted by Muirhead and McKenzie meant no-one was injured. Their unviable nature plus insufficient evidence that they intended to kill the recipients resulted in the original charge of conspiracy to assault and murder being reduced to plotting to assault. Yet the pair's technique was growing in sophistication and, if they had not been stopped, there is every likelihood they would have eventually caused injury. Their actions, described by the detective in charge of the investigation as "predicated on hate", reveal that a malevolent streak of sectarianism still lurks in elements of Scottish society, in defiance of considerable efforts to be inclusive and outward-looking.
The Celtic manager, in particular, has long been the target of sectarian abuse and has also been assaulted. When a Hearts fan was acquitted by a jury of assaulting him during a match when the incident was caught on film, the verdict was descibed as "inexplicable" and sending the wrong message.
It is unfortunate that the parcel bomb duo could not be charged with an aggravated crime. Nevertheless, the message must be clear: such despicable behaviour will be prosecuted and punished.
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