LEGISLATION aimed at stamping out sectarianism at football matches in Scotland is now in force – and while problems are rare on terraces in the Borders, the law also applies to people watching a match on screens in pubs, clubs and hotels.
And police, prosecutors and the Scottish Parliament have said they are determined that the terms of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act will be enforced wherever it is breached.
Hollyrood’s Community Safety and Legal Affairs Minister Roseanna Cunningham stressed: “The overwhelming majority of football fans who have been supporting their teams in the true spirit of the game for years have absolutely nothing to fear from this legislation. In fact it is designed to improve their experience, ensuring they can focus on football and not be distracted by the mindless, hateful prejudices of a small minority.
““This legislation will have no impact on the banter and passionate support that goes hand in hand with supporting football teams. It is not about discouraging the competition and rivalry that is the lifeblood of football, it is about eradicating sectarianism and other unacceptable expressions of hate from our national game.”
Police Superintendent David Brand from the Football Co-ordination Unit for Scotland added: “It’s really a minority of fans associated with Scottish football whose behaviour causes offence. But that minority can ruin it for others.
“Examples of the behaviour we wish to eradicate, from the singing of sectarian and pro-terrorist songs to abusive behaviour, have been broadcast around the world, triggering hundreds of complaints, including from Scots living abroad who have been shocked to see what was coming out of their country.
“What I am pleased to hear and see, however, is that there are clear signs of strong support from fans who have decided they will not stand for this kind of offensive behaviour in football. They absolutely recognise what is banter but they also know what is unacceptable and where the line is crossed.”
Those who breach the new legislation can be jailed for up to five years or handed unlimited fines.
The act creates two distinct offences:
z The first targets any hateful, threatening or otherwise offensive behaviour, expressed at and around football matches, which is likely to cause public disorder.
z The second relates to the communication of threats of serious harm or which are intended to stir up religious hatred, whether sent by post or posted on the internet.
The act covers matches being screened in any public place, with the most likely venues being licensed premised. It also covers supporters making their way to or from pubs, clubs and hotels where they watch games.
Ms Cunningham said the Scottish Government had listened to police and prosecutors who said they needed greater powers to take a hard line on sectarianism at football and threats of harm posted on the internet.
She added: “These new laws make it very clear that religious hatred will no longer be tolerated and there should be no mistake that those who promote sectarianism will feel the full force of the law.
“I think we have already made progress around the kind of behaviour that is deemed acceptable at and around football matches and this legislation cements the message about the kind of Scotland we want to live in – bigots have no place in modern Scotland.”
Superintendent Brand said: “Police and clubs are taking action, but fans also have a responsibility – to themselves, to each other and to the game. It is up to each individual to consider what kind of impact their own behaviour will have and whether it would be considered offensive by others.”
The new legislation came into effect on March 1.