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Spiers on Sport: Offensive Behaviour Act knows no peace…

What an ongoing mess in Scotland over the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. This accursed piece of legislation, bounced onto the statute book amid panic and anxiety two years ago, continues to haunt the Scottish government.

In recent months an assortment of MSPs, defence lawyers, Sheriffs and more have all decried the Act, with the words of Sheriff Richard Davidson, a Dundee judge who referred to the legislation as "mince", remaining particularly resonant.

This week Celtic FC joined in the chorus of disapproval, claiming the Act is "unhelpful and counter-productive" in its ill-defined means, not to mention the way the legislation has resulted in a higher incidence of alleged police harassment of football fans.

I must say, this Celtic intervention raised a weary smile. The club is now claiming to have "opposed this legislation all along", which simply does not chime with the support it gave the proposed bill from the outset.

Back in 2011, when the new legislation was being mulled over and various people (including me) were summoned to give their thoughts on it, the Celtic chief executive, Peter Lawwell, and the club's head of security, Ronnie Hawthorn, both gave their assent to it in principle.

"I think we all welcome the principle of this bill," Hawthorn told the Justice Committee at Holyrood, words which Lawwell also echoed at the time. This, it must be said, differed sharply from large groups of Celtic supporters, who opposed the legislation from the very off.

Personally, I don't really dig up either Lawwell or Hawthorn for their initial welcome of the bill. Back then it was still at the construction stage and, while expressing one or two reservations, I more or less did the same.

It was one thing, in principle, to back "anti-hate legislation" - on that my own view hasn't really changed, given the years of sectarian poison we'd had to put up with in Scottish football grounds.

The bill, during that early period of its potential worth, also received plenty backing from others who knew their legal terrain. Many different police bodies were among them, as well as the Lord Advocate, who told the Justice Committee: "My judgement is, there is a need for it [the legislation]."

Those of us who wondered whether, principle of "anti-hate" legislation aside, there was not already sufficient deterrent in law to curb football crowds, were told by various police voices that the new bill would help "plug the gaps" in terms of tackling sectarianism in Scottish football.

Well, all of this and more has come home to roost for many. The Offensive Behaviour Act has been described as "mince", "horribly drafted" and a lot worse besides. And every time she is summoned to speak on the subject, such as this week, Roseanna Cunningham, the Communties Safety minister, looks like she is having to justify one of the SNP government's prized carbuncles whenever she opens her mouth.

Many want to see the Act reined-in, revised, or even dropped completely, but it seems it is destined to soldier on, despite various protests, until a group of Stirling University academics can - hopefully - give a definitive account of its effects or otherwise in August 2015.

The question is, does this legislation seem as relevant today as it did, say, three years ago? Well, strangely, it doesn't.

In truth, Scottish football has been overtaken by other sagas, not least the fate of Rangers. The Ibrox support, who were once at the heart of this sectarianism debate, have not only gone a long way to cleaning up their act, but are also now engaged and pre-occupied with a far greater concern - the ongoing survival of their club.

Celtic do remain more concerned by it, especially given the rows the club has had with its very own Green Brigade, over what can and cannot be sung at matches.

For many, the curse of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act remains this: its grey areas of definition. It is a piece of legislation which seems to rely too heavily on what "reasonable people" might deem to be offensive, when in fact it quickly transpires that all sorts of "reasonable people" have all sorts of contrasting views on this.

Down the line, many believe, this Act will not survive in its present form.

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Football

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