Sir Tom Devine: Ditch the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act

By LEWIS KEMP

THE DATE was March 2, 2011. Celtic and Rangers were facing off for the third time in just 26 days.

Mark Wilson’s solo strike would be overshadowed by the now iconic image of Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist clashing on the touchline.

The public outcry from the match occurred almost instantly.

A summit was called and later, a piece of legislation was rushed through parliament that promised to cure the evils of the Old Firm.

Scotland’s leading historian, and expert on the sectarian divide, Sir Tom Devine remembers it well.

He said: “There was a kind of witch-hunt that was going on. There was a demand, almost a scapegoating process.

“The SNP government were very concerned about Scotland’s international profile- particularly since we were in the build up to the 2014 referendum at the time.

“And so it was a case of taking the proverbial hammer to crack the nut.

“There was already legislation in place. The issue was that the prosecuting authorities and the police were not operating it satisfactorily.”

The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act came into force a year later and has been plagued with problems ever since.

This bill has been criticised by everyone from fans in the stands to senior judges in court.

Critics of the bill claim that it criminalises football fans and that it has damaged the trust between supporters and the police.

Devine sympathises with this viewpoint stating: “The legislation should be ditched because it often criminalises young men who have just been behaving stupidly.

“The people that make this legislation are not the judges or the lawyers but are the politicians who have got to be conscious of public opinion.

“This becomes a problem when you have a media which is obsessed with the Old Firm and with activities associated with them.

“One of the reasons why it has got into such difficulties in the first place is that a lot of people didn’t feel that they could give consent to this legislation.

“And the thing about law is that the processes which are decided have got to be met with consent otherwise it’s unworkable.”

Devine was also critical of the popular perception of football fans within mainstream society, believing that this was partly why the bill was introduced in the first place.

“There’s always been this problem because it’s a class problem,” said Devine.

“It’s always been the game of the working classes and its been quite easy given some of the behaviour that’s occurred over the last 100 odd years, for the middle classes, professional classes and upper classes to sneer and condemn some aspects of that.

“It says a lot that alcohol is banned in football but not in rugby for instance.”

Recently, opposition parties successfully lobbied for the act to be repealed in Parliament.

However, Devine thinks it is very doubtful that the bill will be completely abolished. He argued: “It would be a considerable loss of face for the Scottish Government if it were to be scrapped.

“But they can’t do nothing because this is a democratic statement from the Parliament. The majority have spoken.

“My own gut feeling is that there will be changes but these won’t be entirely comprehensive.”

 

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