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There is little proof the majority of fans are getting worked up over the 'football law'

WHAT a strange place the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act occupies in our game.

The Act targeting offensive behaviour at games has no relevance to the matchday ritual of the vast body of fans. Picture: SNS
The Act targeting offensive behaviour at games has no relevance to the matchday ritual of the vast body of fans. Picture: SNS

Nine words which inflame a few and seem to cause indifference and apathy among plenty of others. When Scottish Labour last week announced it would repeal this headache of a law if it wins the next Holyrood election in 2016 the story was the front page splash in The Daily Record and got plenty of newspaper coverage everywhere else. STV's flagship discussion programme kicked the issue around for the opening half of its show.

But here's the thing: how many conversations were there about it in the stands, in the pubs, on supporters' buses and on public transport to and from all the games held across Scotland at the weekend? This new "football law" with the power to discriminate against and criminalise "football fans" does not actually intrude on the daily lives of most.

One newspaper report described it as the "hated football bigotry laws" last week and clearly for a small section of supporters that description is appropriate. But across the broad spectrum of fans there has been a conspicuous absence of engagement with the campaign to oppose the law rushed into the statute books in 2012. That isn't down to ignorance or naivety - the law is fundamentally unjust and can criminalise people for behaviour on the day of a match which would not attract police attention 24 hours earlier or later - and nor should it be interpreted as any sort of widespread tacit support.

But it's pretty clear that the vast majority of folk who go to Scottish football simply do not get worked up about it. Many have interpreted it this way: even if it's a flawed, discriminatory law, almost sinister in some respects, well, they personally have nothing to fear from it. It has no relevance to their matchday ritual. If you can get through your day without mouthing off about "fenians", the IRA or any of the other depressing old triggers then the law isn't going to cause you any problems. As for how this law impinges on free speech and even the right to cause offence in a democratic society, there isn't much evidence that the vast body of fans in Scotland are worried.

When Celtic recently called for a review of the law a club statement said the legislation "has inevitably led to a sense of discrimination across Scottish football". There isn't much sign of that. Figures for the first full season in which the legislation applied showed 31% of those charged had "Rangers affiliations" and 25% Celtic (the next highest was Hibernian with 10%).

Clearly the law has been more relevant and significant to the fans of the giant Glasgow clubs than those of anyone else. Where has been the conspicuous united front between them on an issue of obvious common ground? So entrenched is the division it seems to have been beyond them to put differences aside and share a political platform, even on something which so obviously agitates a minority of both clubs' supports.

Any campaign embraced properly by both the Celtic and Rangers fanbases would be an extraordinarily powerful force in Scottish society. Or we must presume it would be: they can't bring themselves to sit together and make it happen. When a rally against the law was held in Glasgow's George Square last year it became an unequivocally "Celtic" occasion. Around 3500 attended and aired their opposition clearly and peacefully, but event was held before a Celtic home game against Hibs which naturally swelled the numbers.

Bitter rivals can come together. Fans of Liverpool and Manchester United, as toxic a rivalry as exists in England, campaigned together against high ticket pricing for away games last year. But there has been no really high-profile, shared platform opposing the SNP's law.

When Celtic's Fans Against Criminalistion group launched a download campaign to get "Roll of Honour" into the UK charts a spokeswoman said: "This is not about encouraging people to sing the song, it's about saying this song should not be a criminal offence to sing. It's not a criminal offence unless you are a football fan."

Many supporters of all clubs would have sympathised with the principle of that but choosing a song lionising IRA hunger strikers was a provocative and isolationist statement which, instead of encouraging a broad base of support from fans of all clubs, was a blatant two fingers to them.

The courts and legal system have been clogged with cases of supporters of Celtic, Rangers and a few others, often men under 30 with some booze in them, getting hauled into the dock for spouting off something supposedly threatening, hateful or offensive. The conviction rate after one season was 68%. But in many cases sheriffs and defence lawyers have disparaged the legislation as everything from rushed, confusing and impossible to define to "mince". The police's rejection of a proposed Aberdeen card display at the League Cup final, on the insane grounds that it might be construed as pro-IRA, showed the disconnect there can be between those enforcing the law and reality.

Yet there has been no mainstream fans' uprising against the Act because it's not seen as something which impacts on them. And it seems that even many who dislike the law don't have much sympathy for those who fall foul of it.

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

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