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If Strict Liability Is Really Coming Then Celtic Must Be Involved In Shaping It.

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Yesterday, amidst some much needed self-examination from our political class and certain sections of the media, there was at least one piece of raw, naked, opportunism.

Those who follow @CelticBlog2018 will know I find the calls for Hamza Yousef to resign to be not only laughable but frankly barmy, but he was the one seeking to turn this dire event into another excuse to start touting this ludicrous “strict liability” stuff all over again.

I’ve been opposed to the idea in every one of its forms since it was first proposed, and I believe the Offensive Behaviour At Football Act was one of the most appalling and illiberal pieces of legislation ever put in front of a legislature.

Apart from criminalising free speech, it was a way to dodge actually doing something about rampant sectarianism by trying to pretend it only manifested itself during the football. It was, in short, reprehensibly cowardly.

Strict Liability is an effort to do the same; to reduce Scotland’s sectarianism problem to something that can be fit inside a football ground, but it’s bigger than that. I said earlier that Scotland itself must not be painted as backward and bigoted because of the actions of these Peepul, but nor can we pretend that this is a matter that starts and stops at Ibrox’s doors.

And yet, I wonder if after the weekend whether or not it’s a good starting point.

Slowly, but surely, I am coming round to the idea of something that does make the “custodians” of Sevco responsible for the destructive and sectarian behaviour of its fans.

It’s an argument that I am ready to listen to, an argument I think comes down to two things; what exactly are we aiming to achieve with this and how will it be implemented?

Let me ask a question to those recommending this; what good, exactly, would it have done this weekend? How would Strict Liability have stopped the Peepul from wrecking the city centre or fighting with the police?

If Yousef is suggesting that the club would have been held liable for that outpouring of violence and vandalism, then I’m listening … otherwise there is simply no point even listening to a word he has to say on it and he should be called out for trying to piggy-back on the scandal to get an unwanted law imposed on the national game.

Make the link between the club and those ugly scenes – and it’s not difficult to do since the club was the whole reason for the ugly scenes – demonstrate that it at least encouraged them and demand that it gets its house in order, and this idea deserves listening to and taking seriously.

UEFA strict liability does not extend to what happens outside of the ground; it would be a radical shift if Scottish football were to have a law imposed on it wherein clubs are held responsible for what their fans do peripheral to matches … but maybe it’s the way to go.

Had Rangers been held properly accountable for Manchester I think they might have been forced to get a grip on this element of their support long before now.

But here’s the kicker; the last time this government passed a law they made political expression a criminal offence, and you’d have to be deeply concerned about any attempt to do that again and in particular if it governed people far away from grounds.

Let me be blunt; Celtic fans would never have caused those disgusting scenes at the weekend, but any gathering in which Republican songs were being sung – to give you one example – would be susceptible to prosecution although the difference between singing about the Irish War of Independence and chanting hateful stuff about being up to the knees in fenian blood hardly needs pointing out to any rational person.

We know that if the SNP had taken their ridiculous football law outside of the sport for even two seconds most national anthems would have been prosecutable, as would other songs such as Free Nelson Mandela, just because they took a political side.

Those who talk about Republican songs “glorifying terrorism” are howling at the moon; I repeat, again, my long standing challenge, for someone to name me one song that the great mass of Celtic fans (I am not talking about a handful of idiots in a pub here) sing or have sung which glorifies the death of either enemy soldiers or worse, non-combatants … ten years on, I have yet to have this test met, and I have stated that I will quit blogging if someone does it.

The IRA was a “proscribed organisation”: so was the ANC. And guess what? Both organisations are now represented at the highest levels of government in their native lands.

In other political environments know what else would be a proscribed organisation, for preaching separatism? The SNP itself. Thankfully we don’t live in such a place.

So the line has to be drawn, firmly and unequivocally, between sectarianism, bigotry, racism and political expression because one is not the other. If the Ibrox goons want to sing about Britain never shall be slaves let them warble to their hearts content; but if that’s legitimate expression then so too is The Soldiers Song and the Boys Of The Old Brigade.

But chanting hate is what it says on the tin and that’s a prosecutable offence already and I’m not convinced we need another law on this when present regulations are more than sufficient.

Yet, as I said, I’m willing to be convinced if it prevents disgraceful scenes such as those we saw at the weekend. Just tell me how it will work.

I’ll tell you something else too; I’m very concerned over who will oversee the law and who will be its ultimate arbiters because it seems to me that the problem this weekend was at least partly the fault of the authorities who could have stopped crowds from gathering in the first place … the violence and all the rest of it were the natural consequence of the police allowing the law to be flagrantly broken all day long; I still can’t believe all the praise being showered on them for essentially deciding to stand back and permit blatant criminality for most of the day.

See, this is where Yousef and others lose me on this.

How exactly was it football’s fault that those ugly scenes were permitted? Where exactly does holding the Ibrox operation responsible for them flow from?

The club did the bare minimum permissible to tell fans to “celebrate” in accordance with the law; they are going to ask what more they could have done, and whilst I wholly agree that their statements and actions were completely inadequate when they ask that perfectly valid question – “What more did you expect us to do?” – I’m curious what the answer will be.

If they then say “Isn’t it the police’s job to enforce the laws we have?” I am going to be in total agreement with them, although I think they are more than just partly responsible and should be held accountable for their role in it.

More than anything else, this is the point where silence is no longer in our best interests.

Those scenes at the weekend are now being used as a means to inflict all of football with something that will make the Offensive Behaviour Act look modest; we can no longer sit on the side-lines and pretend that this doesn’t concern us.

We weren’t involved, but we are being threatened with the consequences, and that merits a firm statement from the club. It also merits our involvement and engagement with any proposals which are put forward for a vote. The SNP lacks a majority to get a bill like that through the Parliament and I don’t believe the Greens are going to support them in doing it.

But we have to be prepared in case they swing behind the idea. If Strict Liability is coming we have to be involved in its planning and in its execution; our club needs to have a role in helping draft the law, and if there’s a version of it that we can support as a club we need to make that clear from the first, because maybe the time for this has come.

I’m waiting to be convinced. Having unanswered questions no longer constitutes opposition. I could be swayed here, but the sales pitch would have to be awesome and the regulations robust and clear and not open to interpretation.

We know what constitutes hate-speech and all our politicians and some of the press have articulated that; how we tie those scenes to Ibrox in a legal sense is just one of the many things that has to be clarified for the future.

But I’m not saying no and that’s an important change of pace.

I think most people who have been opposed want to see some fine print … I wonder how many of them, like me, have concluded that if it’s done right that we should have it.

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