MSP pushes forward with Strict Liability bill for Scottish football despite vocal opposition

1 May 2019

Photograph: Pixabay

MSP James Dornan’s bill met with mixed reactions, including social media death threats

MSP James Dornan has further reiterated the need for his proposed Strict Liability bill in Scottish football, after a string of fan offences dominated Scottish media in March and April, and caused high profile figures in the game to condemn supporters.  

Strict Liability will see clubs be held culpable for their own fans’ behaviour, and that of visiting fans should it be clear that the host club failed to follow police advice on safety measures. Sectarian singing and the use of pyrotechnics are examples of what could lead to fines and partial stadium closures under Strict Liability.

“There was a time when it was okay to sing Irish rebel songs because it was about historic events, but then it became real when the Troubles came about and it wasn’t okay… When I was 15 I would have been singing these songs. But the issue is not teenagers singing these songs – they take their lead from more mature, elderly people around the ground,” said Dornan.

Dornan hopes that Strict Liability doesn’t just eradicate anti-social behaviour in football grounds, but encourages fans to take action themselves particularly on the more easily lead sectors of support.   

“The [football] authorities in Scotland are lily livered. They are complete and utter cowards – they will not take on the roles that they are there to do. I think they’re scared of the big two football clubs, and they won’t do anything,” he said, continuing “I’m hoping that with Strict Liability that self-policing will be better. I think [self policing] can be done and Strict Liability is a tool to do it with.”

The amount of arrests under the SNP’s previous fan behavior tackling bill. Photograph: Craig Quirie

In recent years, The Green Brigade of Celtic and Union Bears of Rangers have made scathing attacks, both in banner and song, at the SNP and police over the handling of their behaviour in stadiums.

Dornan said: “I don’t like the Ultras culture. The noise and atmosphere they create can be good, but then they cross the line and do something that is all about them and not the club – one of the issues I have with the likes of the Union Bears and Green Brigade, is that it’s about them more so than it is about the club.

“If it was about the club, the Green Brigade wouldn’t have had a banner that said “Fuck UEFA” knowing the club would get fined, and the Union Bears wouldn’t have refused to sing in the first half of a game just the other week because they were told they weren’t allowed to sing some songs so they went in a huff – that’s not [adult].”

Union Bears and Green Brigade stickers ironically beside each other in Glasgow. Photograph: Craig Quirie

Both the Green Brigade and Union Bears have shown opposition to the implementation of Strict Liability, and Dornan admits that this could be used as propaganda by clubs.

Dornan said: “Clubs always put the best spin on things that they can, and they spin things in a way that’s going to get their side up – and I have no doubt they’d do that with [Strict Liability] and it would get the old bunker mentality of ‘No one likes us, we don’t care so let’s go out and show them.’ But, if it’s brought in through legislation, Celtic and Rangers will have no choice but to abide by the rules.”

He added: “I have made it clear from the very off that if football will take it seriously and deal with the issue of sectarianism, and behaviours seen recently, then I’d be happy to drop strict liability – as long as they bring something in place that we could guarantee would [play] a similar role.”

In the past year, Celtic, Rangers and Hearts fans have been accused of trashing sections of opposition stadiums. Although Strict Liability would see these clubs be punished for such behaviour, clubs with smaller, less boisterous fanbases still have reservations over the implementation of the act.

In response, Dornan said: “Many clubs have been mislead about Strict Liability. For example, just because it happens in your ground, doesn’t make you liable – if Celtic or Rangers go to Gayfield Park and there’s trouble there, Arbroath wouldn’t be held to account as long as they had done what the police had suggested in terms of stewarding and numbers. It’d be Celtic and Rangers [held accountable].”

Despite a relentless push to have his Strict Liability bill introduced, Dornan has admitted that it still won’t see all offences dealt with. Aberdeen manager, Derek McInness claimed sectarian chanting was being directed at him in his club’s recent semi-final tie against Celtic. There was no footage of the alleged chanting, Dornan was at the game, and says he did not hear anything.

“Not every case can be proven, Strict Liability cases would be about loud chants from certain sections of the ground or instances that were caught like the Steve Clarke and Kris Boyd cases – they’re very clear,” said Dornan.

The MSP has received much criticism for the challenge he has levelled at football fan behaviour, and says he has had to stop using his social media accounts after his family became concerned at the death threats he was receiving. One person in support of his proposal however, is David Scott of anti-sectarian charity Nil By Mouth.

Scott said: “We’ve been campaigning for Strict Liability since 2013 as it’s beyond doubt that Scottish football simply lacks the guts to tackle sectarianism at games… We’ve yet to see a club docked a point or a pound for sectarian abuse pouring forth from the stands. Without introducing UEFA standards this ‘zero liability’ culture will continue to be the norm.

“With clubs preferring the ‘invisible touch’ of self regulation, politicians are going to have to get involved to bang heads together as the Scottish game’s reputation nosedives – we’ve had four of the 12 SPFL Premier League managers hit out at the abuse they’ve received in the last few months alone.

“Compare this with the proactive approach taken south of the border where far smaller numbers of fans spew racist abuse at matches and Scottish football looks even more pathetic and tolerant of bigotry.”

However, Jeanette Findlay, of Fans Against Criminalisation – an organisation which spearheaded the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football (2012) Act, has cast doubts over the potential introduction of the bill and has insisted that political attention would be better suited elsewhere.

I don’t think Strict Liability will ever be introduced. It is just another stunt from a politician trying to be relevant and still smarting from the repeal of the OBFA. Clearly there would be many concerns about how such a system would be used and political bias is part of that.  Who would decide which ‘loud chants’ clubs would be held liable for, for instance.”

She continued: “There are societal problems which manifest themselves in football as they do elsewhere and these need to be addressed by government and not ignored in favour of a cheap and dirty fix in the context of a sport in which disorder is almost entirely absent.”

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