Joan McAlpine & Séamas Ó Sionnaigh
This is a guest post following on from Joan McAlpine’s writing on the anti-sectarianism bill and the impact of writing on it, (Sing out for a country free of prejudice and hate) and then the response to that on An Sionnach Fionn.
The Scottish Government is quite right to believe that measures are required to address sectarianism in our society. It is also correct to believe there is a need to urgently address violence, and particularly domestic violence, in the context of Old Firm matches. Unfortunately legitimate motivation has not yet resulted in the development of an effective strategy and the political point-scoring of the unionist parties seems to be resulting in an entrenched defence of well intentioned but inadequate proposals.
The reality is that making laws about what constitutes offensive is a difficult business. The BNP find immigrants offensive. I find the toe-curling obeisance the BBC regularly pays to the royal family offensive. Many people are offended by swearing. Are we going to ban swearing at football matches?
There are existing laws about inciting violence and inciting hatred. The policing of football matches would do well to more effectively focus on addressing these poisonous issues before looking for new laws (an all too common request from senior police officers in a variety of contexts).
And lets not forget that being offensive is one of the joys of being part of a football crowd. With a few noble exceptions (Hibs fans and Sunshine on Leith) much football singing and chanting is specifically intended to annoy opponents and their supporters (or referees). It is sometimes laced with humour. The best example I have witnessed was Luton fans serenading the sending off of Tony Adams with a chorus of ‘Where’s your donkey gone; far, far away.’ It was intended to offend. I have also seen Leeds fans singing ‘We’re not famous any more’ when visiting the MK Dons in England’s League 1, but I am sure they would be offended if it was suggested they were inoffensive. And most singing and chanting in Scotland, England, Belgium, Italy, Hungary and Ghana where I have watched club matches is quite deliberately offensive.
There has been a welcome move over a number of years to eradicate the singing of songs or chants which are racist, homophobic or explicitly sectarian. And Celtic and Rangers have made determined efforts to address sectarianism which they rightly point out is a broader societal issue. It is therefore particularly unfortunate that the Scottish Government seems intent on pressing ahead with an initiative for which they have been unable to get the support of the clubs.
Joan McAlpine argued that “there are circumstances in which these songs, for pragmatic reasons of public safety should not be sung. That includes a football match. The heated atmosphere of the Old Firm means “folk songs” take on a far more sinister tone.” But the most vehement supporters of both sides thrive on perceived (or sometimes real) injustice. These are actually the people whose behaviour we want to change. The blunt instrument of a vague law that pays little attention to the difference between political expression and incitement is almost guaranteed to be counterproductive. And speaking of counterproductive don’t mention rugby.
Séamas Ó Sionnaigh raises some valid issues in his attack on Joan McAlpine and the Scottish Government’s approach to sectarianism, but whilst I would defend his right to make a polemical defence of historical and more recent armed struggle, he actually misses the point. The challenge is how to move forward so that we can live together in these islands without killing each other, in Ireland and Scotland. A good first step would be to discuss our differences without disparaging those we don’t agree with. Séamas seems to have overlooked that Joan’s article was partly prompted by the vitriolic attacks she faced in the Twittersphere for having the temerity to raise the issue. And when Séamas talks of common ethnicity he treads on dangerous ground indeed.
The Scottish Government should not confuse demonstrating a determination to address the sectarianism which is a blight on Scotland with sticking to legal proposals which risk to infringe freedom of expression, provoke intransigence in those whose behaviour they seek to change and alienate the football clubs whose support is required for any successful strategy. And we should all try to lower the temperature of the discussion, even if it makes it less interesting.