Monday, May 30, 2011

Salmond, Scotland and Sectarianism

I always get slightly concerned when politicians start promising they will fast track or speed through new legislation.

Making a law - and I mean making it, drafting it, ensuring it is an informed and workable piece of legislation - should not be a process that can be easily bypassed.

The kneejerk, easy fix solution is beloved of politicians because the only real dialogue it involves is the media soundbite that is now their sole means of communication.

But it rarely leads to long-term solutions.

So I'm cynical about the Scottish Government's latest proposals for new sectarian laws.

Here's a snippet of Alex Salmond this week:

"In the age of Twitter and texts, the dreams of a free-speaking world are contaminated by strains of bitterness. 
"Technology has given fresh energy to old hatreds and viral sectarianism again seeps across our land." 
"It will be stopped. I will not have people living in fear of some idiotic 17th-century rivalry in the 21st century. 
"Sectarianism travels at least in part hand in hand with another scourge of our safety and happiness — the booze culture. 
"Thus the first legislation this parliament will see in this term shall address bigotry and booze."

Booze and bigotry. Twin blights on modern Scotland.

Salmond has been consistent on the problems of our "booze culture" and his new parliamentary majority now gives him the latitude to enact laws that oppositions politicians stymied before the election.

On bigotry he's been less sure footed. The SNP actually seem quite muted in their defence against claims that they have stalled progress on Scotland's sectarian problem by failing to back initiatives started by Jack McConnell when he was First Minister.

That's important here not for political point scoring but because the actions McConnell's government were taking to look into sectarianism would have undoubtedly left the SNP's new found evangelicalism for legislation better informed and better prepared.

Here's Salmond explaining the new legislation:

"I am determined that the authorities have the powers they need to clamp down effectively on bigotry peddled online. The Internet is a force for good in so many ways – but it can also be abused by those who seek to spread hatred. That’s why the Scottish Government will bring forward legislation as soon as we can to make such online behaviour, including posts on sites like Facebook and Twitter, an indictable offence with a maximum punishment of five years in jail. 
"In addition, threatening and abusive behaviour inside a football ground would similarly become an indictable offence, again with prison sentences of up to five years available to the courts for anyone found guilty."

As the recent case of a footballer and a former Big Brother contestant shows, the law's relationship with the internet is somewhat cloudy. It seems unclear how that easily that piece of legislation will be enforced.

And, as Alex Massie points out, "threatening and abusive behaviour inside a football ground" covers such a manner of ills that players and managers might also be worried about the consequences.

If, of course, the laws are actually enforced. We have laws at the moment. Laws covering behaviour at and around football games. Laws that can quite easily be used to cover online crimes. Laws that cover hate crimes:

As of 1st April 2010, the Offences (Aggravation by Prejudice) Scotland Act 2009 class the following as Hate Crimes, with aggravators added to crime reports accordingly. The aggravators are:
  • Race
  • Sexual orientation
  • Religion or belief (replacing Faith)
  • Gender
  • Transgender identity
  • Disability
  • Age

A new law is as worthless as an old law if it is ignored, if people can break it knowing that the police will not stand in their way. It may be that there are gaps are in those laws that need addressed. But is haste the best way to move forward?

Salmond also comes no closer to giving us a definition of sectarianism.

Here's the Oxford Concise Dictionary definition:

adj. denoting,concerning or deriving from a sect or sects > carried out on the grounds of membership of a sect, denomination or other group: sectarian killings (it). n. a member or follower of a sect. (OCD)

And the entry in the third edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage:

Now almost inevitably followed by the word violence, or other noun suggestive of killing or destruction, in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia or elsewhere in the world.

Quoting a dictionary definition seems a dismal step towards pedantry in a blog post. But rarely are the semantics of a word so devoured as they are with "sectarianism" in Scotland.

As Tom Devine recently wrote in the Scotland on Sunday:

"No consensus exists, for instance, on the definition of the term 'sectarianism', a word which platitudinously slips off the tongue of politicians and commentators with little clear understanding."

You might think that a government that has given a minister the specific brief of dealing with sectarianism would see defining sectarianism as a priority. It seems awkward and unworkable to get the laws in place before we have that discussion.

Thus when Rob McLean broke the news of Celtic fans singing "sectarian" songs at Hampden on Saturday most of us knew the sort of thing he meant. But Celtic fans were quick - and a legal precedent exists here - to say the songs in question were not sectarian.

Here's Tom Devine again on why that's the case:

"To understand which followed next it is important to be aware of the specifics of the Act. It states that an offence is aggravated by religious prejudice if: (a) “the offender evinces towards the victim (if any) of the offence malice and ill-will based on the victim’s membership or presumed membership of a religious group, or of a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation; or (b) the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by malice and ill-will towards members of a religious group, or of a social or cultural group with a perceived religious affiliation, based on their membership of that group.” 
"The key issue therefore was: Could vocal approval of the IRA in a public place be considered not simply a potential breach of the peace but one aggravated by religious prejudice? The sheriff listened to the evidence, including my own statement, and the various submissions on this question both by defence lawyers and the Crown. He concluded that doubtless some members of the public might take offence at songs being sung in support of an organisation which the UK Government considered to be a terrorist movement. 
"Nonetheless, he ruled that the IRA was a republican military organisation, was not sectarian in intent and that those who showed support for it, real or rhetorical, were not showing “malice or ill will towards members of a religious group’’. The charge could not therefore be sustained under the 2003 legislation and the accusation of a religiously aggravated breach was dismissed."
Note the judge isn't saying it's OK. He's not saying it's nice. He's saying it's not a crime under the legislation.

Will the new laws accept that precedent? Will there be lists of prohibited songs? Will the new legislation criminalise certain songs but deem others acceptable.

Is that even a route down which our modern society would be comfortable travelling?

Here's the Scoland on Sunday's Kenny Farquharson on why we might feel some discomfort at what Justice Minister Kenny MacCaskill is planning:

"To say the very least, this is undue haste. MacAskill is about to step into one of the world's most contentious and morally nuanced areas of law - a perfect philosophical storm of internet freedom, religious freedom and freedom of speech. And he intends to have it done and dusted in the few weeks of parliament that remain before MSPs start packing the Ambre Solaire and picking up a Jackie Collins to read by the pool? So the law can be in force by the time the Wee Red Book of fixtures is published for the new football season?

This is not an issue for bish-bash-bosh government. When it strays into thought crime it's debatable whether it should be an issue for government at all. Surely MacAskill has learnt a lesson from the anti-sectarianism summit a few weeks ago, which came up with the unworkable idea of adding football stadium exclusions to the sentencing options for perpetrators of domestic violence on Old Firm match days."

Salmond mentions "bigotry" and these discussions are taking place because of the Old Firm rivalry and its traditional religious element.

But will religion be the only focus of the laws?

Here are some figures regarding hate crimes in Scotland:

A report on Hate Crime in Scotland, 2010-11 was published today. This brings together in one publication figures previously published separately on race crime and religiously motivated crime. It also included figures on the three recently introduced categories of hate crime (disability, sexual orientation and transgender identity), legislation for which came into force on 24 March 2010. 
The main findings are 
In total 4,165 charges of race crime were reported to the Procurator Fiscal in 2010-11, 3.6% fewer than in 2009-10. Court proceedings were commenced in respect of 83% of these charges. In total, 92% of charges led to court proceedings (including those not separately prosecuted but where other charges for the same accused within the same case were) 
There were 693 charges with a religious aggravation reported to the Procurator Fiscal in 2010-11, 9.7% more than in 2009-10 and the highest number since 2006-07. Court proceedings were commenced in respect of 85% of charges. In total, 94% of charges led to court proceedings (including those not separately prosecuted) 
In the first full year of implementation of the new legislation, 448 charges were reported with an aggravation of sexual orientation, 50 with an aggravation of disability, and 14 with an aggravation of transgender identity 
Court proceedings were commenced in all 14 transgender identity charges. Court proceedings were commenced in 79% of the sexual orientation charges (86% including charges not separately prosecuted), and 70% of the disability charges (74% including charges not separately prosecuted)

My own anecdotal experience outside the Old Firm bubble is that there is more widespread racism and homophobia - however casual that might be - among supporters in Scotland than there is religious, certainly anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant, bigotry.

Will these new laws also be targeting that unacceptable face of football?

We also have the continual debate about whether football offers a platform for Donald Findlay's "90 minute bigots" or if the bigots arrive fully rounded from a general sectarian lifestyle to pollute football's innocence.

To what extent can these problems be traced back to the experiences of our industrial past? How has the destruction of those industries affected the problem? How far has the problem of sectarianism seeped through society from what might be considered its traditional strongholds? If, indeed, there are traditional geographical strongholds.

The government hasn't shown any movement towards actually getting to the bottom of those issues.

Laws aimed at shutting up the peddler of hate without looking at why he is so filled with hatred are not the way to build a modern Scotland.

Amazingly, there has never even been any public study or analysis of the crime figures I quoted above to discover the nature and patterns of Scotland's "religion or belief" motivated hate crimes. (A sample made available to the Catholic Church some years ago is reported to have suggested that crimes against Catholics made up the majority.)

We know that figure has recently gone up to as high a level as 2006/07. We don’t why. We don’t know why race crimes have fallen. We don't know how many of these crime of hate were influenced, however indirectly, by the tribalism of some football supporters. These are important things to understand.

Some of that data will soon be made available. But not until after the June deadline given for pushing the new laws through parliament.

A football manager in Scotland should be able to do his job without being targeted by lunatics with an agenda that most of struggle to understand.

That much is clear.

And the government are not only entitled to act but, given football's inability to deal with the problem, are perhaps duty bound to act.

The idea that politics and politicians should stay out football is laughable. Many of the songs that feature in these discussions are, after all, political.

On a more hope filled note what is the move towards improved governance, supporters’ trusts, fans co-operatives, if not political?

Politics and politicians have a role to play. But these are big issues, issues that have long festered in our game.

We need solutions and we need answers to a lot of questions. If, as I suspect, the government has simply come up with an impotent solution that answers the wrong questions, then football - and the majority of football fans in Scotland – will be let down.

And so will Scotland.

More:

Alex Massie Blog
Tom Devine, Herald
Tom Devine, Scotland on Sunday
Alex Salmond via SNP website
Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Services website
Lothian and Borders Police response to FOI request
Lallands Peat Worrier on the new legislation