As the proposed repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act moves through the Scottish parliament, debate rages on all sides. RISE national organiser Sean Baillie says the repeal is important because the act does nothing to address the root causes of sectarianism in society...
The discourse around the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA) has been frustratingly toxic since it was first introduced. It's been characterised by misrepresentation and online spats, even leading to one journalist being labelled 'fanny of the week' for daring to campaign for its repeal. Matters haven't been helped by Police Scotland's perceived use of shock and awe tactics as a method of implementation.
But the repeal of OBFA remains an important issue that must be discussed. On the one hand, it's important as it offers the opportunity to delve deeper into the problems with Police Scotland, the amalgamated national police force growing closer to the state with less and less scrutiny. On the other had, it reignites the question of sectarianism that still lingers on in much of western Scotland. Both of these issues surely play a massive role in how we look to build a new society in any scenario we find ourselves in, whether that be influenced by Brexit, Scottish independence or the misery of austerity as western capitalism struggles to find new markets to consume.
For those unfamiliar with the act, it was initially brought in after an Old Firm 'shame game', where two overpaid football managers had a shouting match on the touchline after a dull Celtic Park encounter in 2011. The result of this spectacle was 1000s of young football fans across the country being used as political scapegoats to pacify an outraged civic Scotland and protect a police budget being slashed elsewhere.
In an economy where even police budgets are cut, every singular arrest (regardless of conviction rate) is counted as evidence to justify a bonus police income from football clubs. When you see the front pages of national newspapers praising dawn raids against teenage Motherwell fans as a victory against alleged sectarian violence, despite all charges later being dropped, you have to question the act's legitimacy and the motives for such stunts.
Police Scotland have been shown to be increasingly unaccountable: the Scottish Police Authority is meant to act as its official watchdog, but has been heavily criticised for a lack of transparency in regards to meetings and other matters. When there's technically been no Chief Constable of Police Scotland since September last year (in fact, he's officially stepped down today), and indeed four different Chief Constables in little over five years, we are entitled to question their ability to safely police such an explosive issue in Scottish society.
There's important historical context to the issue, too, as football fans have historically been an easy target. The panic and hysteria whipped up about hordes of right wing football thugs in the 1970s and 1980s allowed Margaret Thatcher's government and South Yorkshire Police to go to extraordinary lengths cover up the catastrophic police failings at the Hillsborough disaster. The Sun newspaper infamously went as far as to blame the fans for the disastrous loss off life. The Hillsborough inquest in 2016 confirmed that the fans were unlawfully killed, with prosecutions likely to begin in September.
Here in Scotland, the theatre of football has frequently blamed for widespread division within society. Religious sectarianism has been well documented and its roots in communities in west central Scotland can be traced back over a century. What isn't well documented, though, is how civil and industrial society fuelled the division for political and monetary gain. There have been several “friendlies” between the two clubs on top of league games, no doubt providing an ample cash boost at the height of economic depression and against a backdrop of manufactured fear and resentment drummed by the media and political establishment.
This division has lingered on the west coast and hindered attempts to build working class unity. The Scottish independence referendum, Brexit, the continued fall out at the Stormont parliament in Northern Ireland, and even the liquidation and relegation of Rangers has only entrenched views. Of course, the key fact that the Irish diaspora only achieved economic parity in Scotland as recently as 1991 is overlooked when people talk about “sectarianism on both sides”.
We can even draw lessons from what's happening today. Much of the division and hysteria around new migrant communities stems directly from the economic and industrial strategies deployed by the UK government. Large scale de-industrialisation, crippling austerity, and a lack of investment in industry, housing and public services has engineered competition for the basic needs of society. Rather than act responsibly and address these issues, the political and financial classes of the UK and wider Europe have either turned a blind eye or actively encouraged these divisions in order to distract the anger of those who feel the direct force of their economic mistakes.
If we want to really understand why OBFA is so damaging, we should look at the history of sectarianism in Scotland through this lens. We only need to look at the cause and effect of over 100 years of economic violence, how it's stoked division, and how it's being re-enacted today through anti-refugee and Islamophobic sentiment. It's simply impossible for a top down authoritarian show-piece policy that attempts to scapegoat an easily vilified section of society to defeat religions sectarianism in modern Scotland.
Historically, it should come as no surprise that periods of huge sectarian division are preceded by mass agitation and unity. In 1907, the famous union organiser Jim Larkin helped to unite Protestant and Catholic workers on the Belfast docks, encouraging even the Orange Order to raise funds for striking workers and causing a brief mutiny by the city's Royal Constabulary. There were similar demonstrations of unity in cities and towns with large Irish communities over the next decade or so. Strikes in Glasgow and Liverpool were met with disproportionate military force by a Secretary of State hell bent on crushing any working class dissent – a certain Winston Churchill.
The battle raged on through the 1920s and into the economic depression of the 1930s. In order to avoid the same trouble as previous decades, a concerted effort was made to divide the city's working class. Religious divisions were drummed up, sectarian razor gangs were employed as strikebreakers, and a degree of selective employment was introduced into the main industrial sectors. The British government offered concessions to the working class who proved most loyal, dividing the working class and limiting the Labour movement's ability to achieve widespread advanced in people's living conditions.
Fast forward to the present day, we find ourselves in a situation where there are no jobs, housing or privilege afforded to the working class regardless of loyalty to the state. The economic power has shifted from an industrial base to a financial base – the need for a divided working class remains the same but the means of control are different.
A demographic of the working class who proved themselves loyal to the state for generations have now been abandoned and cast onto the scrap pile with the rest. This is important in the context of any sectarian debate: the anger, frustration and resentment felt by loyalist working class communities must be considered in any debate aimed at tackling sectarianism or even achieving Scottish independence.
I say all this to encourage a debate on why sectarianism exists and how we can defeat it because the parallels with the battles raging today are striking. We have struggled for over a century to defeat perceived religious division between Catholics and Protestants, and we can't wait another hundred to misdiagnose between white people and brown people, Christians and Muslims.
Why is this all relevant to OBFA? The arguments against it reach far beyond 90 minute football games because the problems it fails to solve are rooted in our society. We can't grant an increasingly authoritarian police force a free pass to destroy a generation of young working class people to prop up a misdiagnosed political agenda.
Existing laws are in place to tackle hate speech and bigotry and laws specific to football fans already prevent violence and crowd trouble. Being able to force through a law because you can should become a game of smoke and mirrors to mask society's failings, especially when the law in question drops more charges than it convicts and the majority of fans arrested support clubs other than Celtic and Rangers, its intended targets.
We must stand up and be proud of our opposition to this act and all it entails, be clear on the causes of sectarianism, and confidently strike forward with our commitment to overhauling the current and political and economic system if we are stand a chance of burying the problems of past, present and future.
RISE are hosting a public meeting about OBFA at the Unite building in Glasgow on February 13. Information here.