By Jim Slaven
This week we have seen protests from both Celtic and Rangers fans against the SNP Government’s new Offensive Behaviour Bill. Celtic’s Green Brigade kicked it off with a brilliant demonstration at their home game against Inverness last Saturday. They also followed it up with a statement explaining their actions, which demonstrated they had paid close attention to the Bill’s passage through committee, including the not unreasonable observation that
“It (the new law) comes on the back of a season when our manager was attacked by bigots
because he comes from an Irish nationalist background. The response of the
politicians has been to draft a law that, according to Justice Committee chair
Christine Graham, is designed to target the Celtic support for our Irish
identity and for singing songs in support of Irish nationhood. It looks like the
bigots have won.”
Detailing various abuses of police power at football games the statement will ring true with football fans across the country who have become used to the casual state violence and almost instinctive way the police harass and attempt to criminalise football fans. The Green Brigade ended by throwing down the gauntlet to the authorities
“We won’t roll over to a political agenda that seeks to criminalise us and we
call on all fans and fan organisations to join us and protest against the
criminalisation of the Celtic support.”
The Rangers home support adopted the same tactic at last nights home match against Kilmarnock (although without a statement as far as I can ascertain). What was different at Ibrox was the police tactics. Clearly uncomfortable with the spotlight being on the nature of policing rather than perceived offensiveness of the supporters Strathclyde police decided they were going to bring such demonstrations to an end. Cynically waiting until Rangers scored their first goal the cops moved in with considerable numbers and force to eject the protesting fans and remove any banners they did not approve of.
It must be made clear that there is no suggestion that any of the Rangers supporters were committing any offence. Indeed observers have noted that although they were singing songs against the Government there was no question of any sectarian or racist chanting at all. This account seems to be supported by the police’s bizarre statement after the game when they refused to confirm if anybody was arrested. The police decided to move into the crowd and end a peaceful and perfectly legal, good-natured protest against the introduction of a highly controversial law and then will not tell us who, if anyone, was arrested and what crime, if any, they were committing. This seems to make the protesters point for them. But more than that it raises serious questions about freedom of speech. Who decided that the police can decide which proposed legislation we can express disapproval of?
Today events have taken an even more sinister turn as Lothian and Borders Police have, in a blaze of publicity, announce dawn raids to arrest eleven football fans following last months friendly between Hibernian and Sunderland. The arrests followed ‘disturbances’ and the individuals will be charged with Breach of the Peace aggravated by Religious Hatred. And this is where it gets interesting, what religiously aggravated disturbance took place between supporters of Hibs and Sunderland? The answer is of course none. Not one.
So what is going on and what were these people doing that led the police to assemble the national media for ‘dawn raids’? Firstly 107 Cowgate has learned that those arrested are all Hibernian supporters and contrary to reports were not involved in “violent clashes” . This might explain why they have not been charged with assault or any other charges related to violence of any kind. In fact those arrested were stopped by police on the day , the police then took their details, carried out person checks and took video footage of them. And then they were allowed to continue on their way. So far from being ‘intelligence led’ all the police had to do to identify these individuals was check their notebooks.
So why use the Section 74 anti sectarian legislation in this way? It seems the real purpose of these raids was directly linked to the decision to invite the media. As the Police were only to happy to point out to the assembled journalists
They “hope the operation sends out a clear message ahead of this weekend’s Hearts/Celtic clash at Tynecastle.”
So Lothian and Borders are arresting Hibs fans for religiously aggravated behaviour towards Sunderland, yes Sunderland, fans to send a message to Hearts fans in the run up to the visit of Celtic. Indeed Radio Scotland news (no link), who were also invited to the raids, quotes the police as claiming this mornings operation marks a ‘major change’ in their policing of sectarian behaviour. Why? The existing legislation has been here for nearly ten years. This is actually just another example of the police abusing their powers and treating football fans like second class citizens. Rather than using the powers they have properly and with responsibility this is all about posturing and politics.
The SNP Government are determined to force through this legislation. This is a huge mistake. The police will always want more powers that does not mean they should get them.The actions of the police in Glasgow and Edinburgh over the last 24 hours are just another example of their failure to conduct themselves in a manner which can command the support of football supporters. Indeed it highlights broader societal problems in Scotland namely the demonization of the working class and the lack of transparency and accountability in policing.