Celtic and Rangers should welcome strict liability

“Oldfirm” by en:User:Stanmar — en:Image:Oldfirm.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons — https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oldfirm.jpg#/media/File:Oldfirm.jpg

When ‘The Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland’ issued their final report they found a society which is mostly sensible and integrated. Covering the findings, historian Tom Devine noted:

“[The] labour market discrimination along religious lines is a thing of the past. No evidence was found of structural disadvantage among religious groups. An important degree of overlap existed in the social networks of both Protestants and Catholics and this was extended by high rates of religious intermarriage across Scotland.”

That’s the good news, but the study found “pockets” of sectarianism still exist. One of these is football — specifically the Celtic and Rangers rivalry. The Advisory Group said most meetings mentioned football as a major factor in creating a “toxic environment”. Research backed this up with 88% of those asked believing it was a “major contributor” of sectarianism, with 55% saying it was the biggest.

Perception is not necessarily reality, but football exerts a huge influence in Scotland. When supporters affirm intolerance in numbers it seeps elsewhere. With frustration at the last vestiges of bigotry in football, the Advisory Group asks the question: ‘If not strict liability, then what?’ UEFA’s standard of strict liability means clubs are subject to sanctions such as fines, point deductions or stadium closures if conduct by fans is deemed unacceptable.

There has been pushback against this from many within Scottish football, including Rangers and Celtic. Speaking in March, Celtic’s Chief Executive Peter Lawwell said:

“My own view is no, I would not bring it in at all. I think it is very strict and can be seen to go against justice rather than to support justice. We as a club would be against it. If you come to Celtic Park for an event there is no offensive behaviour, the crowd behaves impeccably and therefore you have to put the problem into context.”

The last sentence is part of the problem. It is true the vast majority of Celtic fans go to Celtic Park in their thousands and are well-behaved, but to suggest there is “no offensive behaviour” is untrue and unhelpful if we wish to face up to the bigots. It might be suggested it’s because a minority are not “impeccably” behaved that Celtic (and Rangers) do not want it. Rangers have not been any better, with former Chairman Alastair Johnston saying in 2009, “I really think that [sectarianism] is behind us now”. Again, this is laughably untrue.

It’s important to emphasise research shows neither club supports nor purposely enables bigotry, but the joint mantra they are doing all they can to eradicate sectarianism within football grounds is wearing thin. Whether we should criminalise fans for singing songs is worthy of debate, but chants about fenians, huns, and sympathetic ballads supporting terrorist groups happens regularly within Scottish football grounds and needs to stop.

As a brilliant paragraph in the report reminds us:

“Football in modern Scotland should embrace all forms of diversity and should act to remove the very vocal minorities who seek to reduce club support to anachronistic loyalties which have no contemporary relevance to the individual club or the sport as a whole. Football, and sport more broadly, should be a way of bringing people together and uniting them through friendly rivalry and appreciation of good sportsmanship, instead we see support for particular football clubs being used as a weapon for fans to separate themselves from the rest of the world.”

Football is only a sport and it should be treated as such. Although clubs can represent a community, they should not be a proxy for religious and national hatreds which have become a caricature of their origins. Rangers and Celtic did not create sectarianism, but they must take responsibility for what goes on in their name within football stadia.

There are legitimate freedom of speech issues, but we should separate what goes on inside and outside football matches. It is not illegal to buy a can of juice, but clubs will stop you bringing it in their property because they are responsible for safety. Similarly, singing in the street is not their concern, but if there is regular bigotry going on within a stadium they are responsible since it is their (or football’s) jurisdiction.

If the SFA and clubs named the songs they do not want to hear and told fans the clear consequences of singing them, then it would only take one or two punishments to stop it. No doubt some will find this naive, but the widely-held myth the majority of Old Firm fans go to the match because of sectarianism is wrong. Most supporters will back their club against the bigots if they show leadership and clarity.

One issue the clubs secretly fear is that one definition of sectarianism might not be the same as another. They do not want to be punished while others are ignored. This is a valid concern, since many who say they are against sectarianism secretly condone it for their ‘side’. There are an even greater number who, through ignorance, would want fines and bans for legitimate religious and national symbols or songs. The oft-quoted line that everyone knows what sectarianism is, is false.

But it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. If there is open discussion and agreement on at least a few chants and songs which we all agree are unacceptable — and there are no excuses for not knowing the consequences — then surely that’s a start? Because the SFA and clubs feel they can’t do everything, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do something.

Would anyone defend chanting expletives against the Pope or songs supporting the Provisional IRA? And if a club or a supporters group believed such things worth fighting for then let them say it openly. For too many years we have been stumbling in the darkness with innuendo and misunderstanding as company. Let’s shine a light on what clubs and fans really believe. I’m confident Scotland will be pleasantly surprised when they discover the majority of Old Firm fans are just like them. But if they do go out of their way to support bigotry then strict liability was all the more necessary.

It’s time for Rangers FC and Celtic FC to show a little courage and realise it’s in their interests to end all association — however indirect — with sectarianism. Strict liability works in England, and will come to Scotland eventually, so why not be pro-active? The majority of fans are sick of the mindless chants and are ready for change. Glasgow is not a divided city. Most people go through life caring little for the beliefs of their friends, neighbours, colleagues and lovers, but the pockets of sectarianism which does exist need extinguished. Celtic and Rangers cannot change the past or what goes on in the streets or social media, but let’s stop pretending they cannot change what goes on inside football stadiums. They can, they just lack the will.