SNP MSP James Dornan has called for government funding to be cut for organisations failing to adequately tackle sectarianism in Scottish society.

Dornan stepped down as a candidate in the SNP deputy leadership race last week to focus his efforts on launching a fresh attempt to tackle the problem in Scotland.

He was a key defender of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA), which was repealed in March and became one of the SNP’s heaviest defeats at Holyrood. The law was aimed at tackling sectarianism in football grounds.

Campaigners said it unfairly targeted fans, and Dornan’s new plan will look at exposing the breadth of the problem in wider society as well as piling pressure on anti-sectarian initiatives and football authorities to take more action. It could include a proposal for fresh legislation.

“It’s not going to be a short process, but I’ll use the parliament. I’m going to try to create a cross-party group to combat sectarianism and I’ll look at a member’s bill to see if that’s the right way to go,” he said.

“It’s clear what my end aim is. The government has a number of things it can do, but money’s always the most important thing for organisations. Should we be giving money to organisations which are, by their lack of action, complicit in things society finds unacceptable?

“Every organisation has to fulfil the criteria for government funding and what I’m saying is those criteria could include something to make sure that they did all they possibly could to combat sectarianism.

“We would not fund an organisation that we thought was OK with racism, we wouldn’t fund an organisation that was discriminatory towards women. We might not be there yet but that’s where I’m hoping eventually we can come to. It might be that a member’s bill won’t be needed to do that, but it may well be one way that we can look at.”

Dornan’s plan to fight sectarianism also includes carrying out extensive research into the depth of the problem within Scottish society.

“There still seem to be pockets of middle-class sectarianism – bowling clubs, golf clubs, places like that, where even if you’re not banned in the rules, it’s harder to become a member for some people.

“These are insidious things and one of the things I would hope to do is get these examples while I’m doing this. I’ve already had people emailing me.

"To solve something, you need to highlight it, you need to let everyone see that it’s there. It’s an issue and it affects everybody, is doesn’t just affect a comparatively small number of people on a Saturday – it affects wider society seven days a week.”

Dornan also backs a number of recommendations made by an anti-sectarian advisory group in 2015, led by Professor Duncan Morrow, which included heightening responsibility on football clubs and authorities. Introducing a “strict liability” model would see punishment more focused on authorities rather than individuals attending games.

A Scottish government report earlier this year showed that Catholics were the targets of 57 per cent of religious hate crime, but there is disagreement over the extent of the sectarian problem in modern Scotland. Historian Tom Devine recently warned there was a risk that discussion of the problem was failing to factor in significant gains made by the minority Catholic community in Scotland and an overall progressive trend.

Last month, Professor Morrow was commissioned by the Scottish Government to head up a working group seeking to draw up a legal definition of sectarianism to provide police and courts with more useful guidance.

However, anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth cautioned against a fresh wave of initiatives and said more would be achieved by implementing Professor Morrow’s 2015 recommendations.

Campaign director Dave Scott said: “The debate over the Football Act has dominated, and in many ways distorted, public debate on sectarianism. The truth is that just as passing the law was never going to solve the problem, its repeal won’t either.

“While MSPs and civic Scotland have been arguing over its future, Prof Duncan Morrow has been quietly and effectively working away to provide an evidence, research and policy base to allow us to define, quantify and address the problem. His reports and their recommendations contain the imagination required to finally lance this boil if our politicians can quickly set aside their differences over the Act and rally behind the measures and strategies he argues for.

“Over the last few months I’ve heard MSPs across the political spectrum loudly say they oppose sectarianism. Cross party support for full implementation of the Morrow report would show these words to have real meaning and lasting impact.”

Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC), which campaigned against OBFA, said: “The ongoing social discussion about any problematic behaviour isn’t really an area for FAC, which is a single issue campaign, but from newspaper coverage so far we don’t think that the conversation has moved on very much at this point.”


It may seem odd that, in 2018, the Scottish Government is trying to find a legal definition for sectarianism, but that’s exactly what it hopes a new working group led by Professor Duncan Morrow will find.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which was marred by confusion over implementation and famously described by one sheriff as “mince”, stumbled into trouble when it became clear it had opened a can of worms over words.

Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly, who led political opposition to the Act, says: “There does need to be work on the definition. I think everybody would broadly agree that if people sing songs and wave banners explicitly aimed against a religious group, that’s bigoted behaviour and encompasses sectarianism.

“The debate around OBFA got into whether people were singing political songs or songs celebrating culture, which some see as sectarian. There needs to be a proper, grown up discussion about that. We need to be clear about what’s hateful and what’s legitimate political freedom of expression.”

The SNP’s James Dornan added: “The end game for me is we should be able to talk about sectarianism in the same way as we now talk about racism and homophobia and sexism and misogyny. I want to get to a stage where we stop using the language that we’re using just now.”