Paul Quigley: The fans fought the law ... and the fans won #RepealTheOBAct

Fans Against Criminalisation campaigner Paul Quigley writes for CommonSpace after a momentous victory for the group, which has lobbied for the repeal of the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football Act for the last seven years, and a historic moment for the Scottish Parliament

IN the summer of 2011, a group of football fans consisting of the main organisations of Celtic supporters, met to discuss new proposals put forth by the Scottish Government as it sought some positive headlines following media pressure to react to the now laughably dubbed ‘shame-game’. 

The infamous game, which took place in February of that year between Celtic and Rangers, happened during a tumutluous period in Scottish football. Tensions were high between players and managers, and off the pitch things were even worse. Celtic manager Neil Lennon was not only attacked by a fan on the touchline during a live television game, he was one of three high profile people in Scotland - the other targets were the late Paul McBride QC and Trish Godman MSP - to be sent viable explosive devices in the post.  

As the conversation developed, the room grew increasingly wary of what was to come. The new legislation, it was apparent, was not designed to tackle sectarianism at all. What the new law would entail was explained to those in attendance, and an air of disbelief lingered as people came to understand that this amounted to an all-out assault on the rights of football supporters.

READ MORE: After the OBFA: Introduce new law or withhold football funding to tackle sectarianism, charity says

This legislation after all, would only apply to them, demonstrating that it was discriminatory from the outset. It was set out not to tackle hate crime, but rather to grant carte-blanche to the police to arrest fans for whatever they wished under the catch-all guise of ‘offensiveness’.

A decision was taken to form a campaign to fight this, partly due to a deeply held collective ideological belief in the right to freedom of expression and equality before law, and partly due to the simple notion of self defence. 

While those who attended this meeting and made up the initial body of Fans Against Criminalisation were Celtic fans, a decision was made from the very beginning that fans of all clubs would be welcome to join our organisation and that we would help and campaign for all football fans who we deemed to be the subject of unjust treatment. 

The challenge ahead, however, appeared to be almost insurmountable. The Scottish National Party had, at this stage, an absolute overall majority in a parliament designed to prevent such a thing, and without any checks or balances of note to curtail the power that would come with such a resounding electoral victory. 

As a result, no consensus was required on this debate. Then, First Minister Alex Salmond paid lip service to the idea, but his government did not seek to engage with opposition parties in any meaningful way, did not listen to the considered critiques of expert witnesses who advised the justice committee during the scrutiny process and did not ever reach out to the community who were set to be affected by this; football fans themselves.

Within the inner sanctum of Bute House, where direction and policy are decided, a political calculation was made; the Scottish Government had the power to wield within the parliament and the capital required with the people which would allow them to force this legislation through as quickly as possible, and easily fend off the protestations of football supporters who would likely fall in line after a short period of moans, groans and upheaval.  

This seemed to be largely risk free. Who could possibly put up a real fight against a piece of legislation supposedly set to tackle the scourge of sectarianism? Who would possibly take the complaints of football fans seriously given the narrative reinforced by the mainstream media that these people are largely all bams, bigots and louts? 

And how long would these bams, bigots and louts even be able to sustain any sort of a campaign against the might of the Scottish Government, supported in earnest by the police and the Procurator Fiscal Service? How wrong were they.

The Bill endured a torturous beating at the justice committee as experts such as Tom Devine and groups such as Liberty and the Law Society eviscerated the law and its intent, yet the warning signs were not heeded. Soon, fan protests really gathered pace. 

Jobs have been lost, relationships severed, families placed under enormous financial strain, reputations have been tarnished and people have suffered varying degrees of mental health problems as a result of pending charges.

Fans Against Criminalisation was able to count on the support of thousands of passionate supporters of the campaign, as was evidenced by a demonstration at George Square which drew thousands of people in late 2011. In spite of this, the government seemed to assume that this would all die down in due course, and that the fan campaign would not have the capability or endurance required to give them real cause to reconsider their position.

When the legislation was enacted, one police officer charged with enforcing this new law had said that the police were seeking to use a tactic of "shock and awe", citing the language used by the American military in their invasion of Baghdad to convey how they intended to use this law to break the will of football supporters attempting to challenge it. 

The treatment that football fans have had to endure ever since has been appalling. The human cost of this legislation is often lost amid the political rabble rousing, among the doctored statistics and the nauseatingly disingenuous moral grandstanding. The reality of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is this; it has ruined lives and caused serious damage in our communities. Don’t take my word for it, listen below to the first-hand accounts below of supporters of a range of clubs who have suffered. 

Jobs have been lost, relationships severed, families placed under enormous financial strain, reputations have been tarnished and people have suffered varying degrees of mental health problems as a result of pending charges, all before a guilty verdict is reached. When the accused is found not guilty, which is the case more often than not, the damage cannot be undone.

In the face of all of this, football fans endured. In the years that followed, an incredible campaign challenged this treatment of supporters and lobbied for the repeal of this ill advised and illiberal piece of legislation. Today, the Scottish Parliament finally voted on this very question. 

The Repeal Bill has passed, and this is the first time in the history of devolution that the Scottish Parliament has repealed its own legislation. This victory is historic not just for football fans, but for the country.

To get to this point, football fans, often led by Fans Against Criminalisation, created a spirited, relentless, resilient and politically astute campaign. The bams, bigots and louts were able to organise to devastating effect. Thousands of fans attended demonstrations, signed petitions, responded to parliamentary consultations and calls for evidence, emailed elected representatives and donated to help support legal battles. 

A statement was released with over 40 signatories of public figures supporting the campaign. A song which was apparently outlawed by the legislation was released as a single and made it to number 33 in the weekly singles chart, prompting it to be played on BBC radio. 

Investigations were carried out and reports produced over incidents of alleged police brutality at the Gallowgate and in Amsterdam. A short film was made which documented the legislation from inception and the impact it had on supporters. A podcast series then tracked the repeal process to keep fans in the loop in the final stage of the campaign. 

The Repeal Bill has passed, and this is the first time in the history of devolution that the Scottish Parliament has repealed its own legislation.

One of the reasons that the campaign was so successful was due to the wealth of talent available within the pool of football supporters.  When we needed someone to code an automated email system for our website, a football fan was on hand to offer their services free of charge. Video editors for the film, a sound production team for the podcast, lawyers, graphics designers, academics, students and many more beside used their skills to help bring us to the point of repeal.

It was suggested by one MSP in parliament that we are somehow shadily funded. The same MSP has also alleged that we as an organisation are a Labour front. The reality is, however, that none of these allegations are true but that simply we have been able to rely upon the passion, talent and hard work of the very people he has attempted to vilify, and this legislation has sought to criminalise. 

They underestimated us in 2011 and they underestimate us now.

As this repeal approached, proponents of the Offensive Behaviour Act became increasingly desperate in their attempts to save it, and smearing fans continued to be their go-to tactic. Martin Hannan wrote a shameful article in The National just ahead of the vote, which attempted to portray fans as bams, bigots and louts awaiting the repeal of this legislation so that they could act as such with added vigour in the belief that they would then be able to do so unchallenged.

The article was full of lazy assertions, and smugly asserted that campaigners were somehow stumped at the question of what is granted precedent; the right to freedom of expression or ‘the human right to not be offended’. Given that people do not have a right to not be offended, I can comfortably side with the former. I am rather unsure how that got past Hannan’s editor. 

They underestimated us in 2011 and they underestimate us now.

People have the right to not be the subject of abuse on account of commonly protected characteristics, a right protected by existing legislation. I found some of Hannan’s attempts at equivalency to be offensive, but I do not have the right to have him arrested and nor should I. Therein lies the difference.

Latterly, he went on to denigrate football supporters for their blind tribalism. The irony, though, is that the tribalism in this debate is entirely one sided. Joint in their opposition to this Act are Celtic fans and Rangers fans, Hamilton fans and Motherwell fans, the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. 

People have repeatedly put football or party-political tribalism aside in their defence of civil liberties, yet those who refuse to see this are those who decry the tribal nature of the beautiful game and then often expose their own prejudices in doing so.

Rather than being denigrated, football supporters should be celebrated. The overwhelming majority of football fans are a credit to their clubs. The very worst stories of the smallest minority may gain most traction in the press, but football can be, and generally is, a force for good. 

When football fans unite and organise, they are capable of achieving some incredible things. Just ask those who run food banks who have received portions of the donations organised by supporters, or the Lajee Refugee Camp and Medical Aid for Palestinians who received a donation of £176,076 following a campaign by Celtic fans. 

Football can be used as a vehicle to challenge intolerance, as fans in Scotland have shown banners celebrating LGBTI pride, made flags opposing racism in our communities and have organised outreach work to help integrate refugees and asylum seekers in to our society. 

They are now on the verge of striking another blow for intolerance, no matter what James Dornan MSP or Martin Hannan might tell you.

Picture courtesy of @hargi_

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