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James Kelly MSP: The Bill is a PR disaster for the SNP

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In the second of our Offensive Behaviour in football Bill special features, Labour MSP and outspoken critic of the Bill, James Kelly writes for Scotzine stating: “The Bill is a part of Scottish life is solely because of the SNP. No other party in Parliament supported it, and Scottish civic society, football fans, academics and lawyers all opposed it.”

Governments rarely miss an opportunity to self promote themselves or their achievements. If something can be described as a significant, historic or even momentous change in public life, it almost certainly will.

And yet, curiously, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed by the present SNP Government is historic, for all the wrong reasons.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 was the first law passed by Holyrood without any cross party support. That it is a part of Scottish life is solely because of the SNP. No other party in Parliament supported it, and Scottish civic society, football fans, academics and lawyers all opposed it.

Why then, was it passed in a first place? Why are we debating its existence a year on?

In my view the legislation was a PR exercise which has badly misfired. It was an attempt by a Scottish Government which didn’t understand the problem of sectarianism in Scotland to be seen to be doing something, as opposed to actually doing something. It was a law created to chase headlines, rather than meaningfully address one of the most complex problems in Scottish society.

It focused too narrowly on football, when in reality intolerance in Scotland goes far beyond 90 minutes on a Saturday and did not add anything meaningful to existing powers already in place. It was described by one senior political commentator as the worst piece of legislation ever passed by the Scottish Parliament.

At the time, Scottish Labour advocated an alternative plan, which looked to build consensus in the education sector, with churches and community groups, something which the Scottish Government failed to do when rushing the legislation through in 2011.

Education and community led initiatives may not generate the same headlines as purporting to “get tough on bigots”, but I believe it is the right approach to ensure that our children do not grow up in a Scotland marred by a culture of intolerance, mistrust and fear. Aligned with existing criminal justice powers, it would have provided a short and long-term approach to tackling sectarianism in Scotland.

In my experience schools are enthusiastic to work on this. Earlier this year Trinity High in Cambuslang became only the second school in Scotland to attain the “Champions for Change” award from Nil By Mouth. And later this year, St Blane’s Primary from Blantyre will have an art exhibition in the Scottish Parliament around the theme of anti-Sectarianism.

Kenny MacAskill claimed the law had been a success, and that the Scottish Government would publish figures relating to the legislation at the end of the football season, but using the football season as a guide to publishing any meaningful appraisal of the law shows that they still have their approach wrong.

With such a sharp focus on football it is no surprise that incidents like the one on March 19th involving Celtic fan Group the Green Brigade generate such controversy – the law has cast a shadow over public debate and makes reasonable discussion almost impossible. It has created a culture of fear and mistrust between the police and football fans – how does this seriously help in the fight against sectarianism?

On the first anniversary of the law coming into force, I wrote to the Scottish Government asking them to carry out an honest appraisal of the law and its effectiveness, and hope such findings will be brought before the Scottish Parliament for scrutiny. The SNP ignored criticism at the time, they cannot continue to now.

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Guest Writers are contributors to Scotzine, but not on a regular basis unlike some of our other writers. If you wish to become a Guest Writer on Scotzine, please email us at editor [at] scotzine [dot] com

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