MSPs show red card to football sectarianism law

Controversial laws aimed at tackling sectarian abuse at football look poised to be axed before the start of next season after the Scottish Parliament last night voted in favour of their repeal.
Union flags and Irish tricolours at an Old Firm match. Picture: John DevlinUnion flags and Irish tricolours at an Old Firm match. Picture: John Devlin
Union flags and Irish tricolours at an Old Firm match. Picture: John Devlin

Opposition parties at Holyrood combined to out-vote the minority SNP Government by 65 to 61 and endorse repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

The laws have been controversial since their introduction in 2012 amid claims they have criminalised a generation of football supporters.

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The legislation has also come under fire from senior legal figures, including judges, for being badly drafted and ineffective. However, they have the backing of Police Scotland and equalities groups.

Now the Scottish Government fears the repeal could undermine the fight against hate crime.

Labour MSP James Kelly is behind the move to axe the laws with his member’s bill at Holyrood.

“It is discredited legislation which has failed to make any progress in tackling sectarianism, while at the same time dividing fans and the police,” Mr Kelly said after last night’s vote.

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“It is time for the SNP government to listen to the will of Parliament and get behind repeal. Instead of continuing to pursue this broken law, it must work to unify parties, anti-sectarian organisations, faith groups and education leaders, and start taking the problem of sectarianism serious.”

The laws were introduced following the infamous Old Firm “shame game” of 2011 that saw then Celtic manager Neil Lennon and his Rangers counterpart Ally McCoist square up on the touchline after the match, with widespread trouble among supporters inside and outside the ground.

The act was the first piece of legislation to have been passed without any cross-party support in the history of the Scottish Parliament when the then-majority SNP government pushed it through seven years ago.

But existing laws, such as breach of the peace, could already have been used to crack down on the sectarian behaviour targeted by the act, a report by Holyrood’s Justice committee last week found.

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The decision at Parliament last night was branded a “sad day” for Scotland by community safety minister Annabelle Ewing.

She said: “The vast majority of well-behaved football fans who, through no fault of their own, become targets of vitriol and abuse will also be concerned about the message today’s vote sends to people who wish to threaten, attack and abuse.”