Bigotry in Fitba’: A New Tomorrow? – Part 2

The first part of this series can be found here.

Pre-2012 lessons

It is well worth taking the time to read the Appeals body ruling by UEFA of 24 May 2006.  At that point Rangers had charges dismissed on the following that were now being appealed by UEFA:

  • the chanting of the so-called “Billy Boys” song on three occasions during the match Rangers FC v/ Villarreal on 22.02.2006;
  • the chanting of the said “Billy Boys” song on approx. 10 occasions and the singing of the lyrics “F**k the Pope” on two occasions during the match Villarreal v/ Rangers FC on 07.03.2006.

The rationale for dismissal was that it was considered that the “Billy Boys” song had been sung for years in both domestic and international fixtures without any authority intervening. It thus concluded that the chants had been somewhat tolerated.

The following is directly from the Judgement issued in the Appeal (emphasis added by the author):

The Chairman of the Appeals Body decided to seek the opinions of experts in the field of sectarianism in Scotland, notably in relation to its historical and sociological context. As a result, two experts, both with a long list of academic qualifications and holding professorships at universities in Great Britain, were asked to submit reports. In fear of possible acts of retaliation against them and their families, both experts requested that their identity not be disclosed to the parties. The Chairman granted this exceptional treatment and decided to add the reports of both experts to the case file and also ordered that the identities and profiles of the witnesses be communicated to the Appeals Body. The parties were given the opportunity to respond to the reports. Rangers FC asked whether either of these experts had any connection with a football club which included unveiling statues or contributing to books or debates focusing on one particular football club or set of supporters.

Both reports confirm that sectarian chanting is a problem in Western Scotland, in particular in fixtures between the two clubs from Glasgow (Rangers FC and Celtic). According to the experts, Scottish sectarianism started at the end of the First World War and was related to the upcoming nationalism in many European countries, in particular Ireland, where the general struggle against British rule and the final creation of the Republic of Ireland led to massive religiously motivated violence in Ulster in the early 1920s, having an impact in the west of Scotland. According to one expert, “the deeply partisan nature of the Old Firm conflict reflected bitter Catholic-Protestant divisions in Scotland themselves which manifested themselves in political behaviour, the highly differentiated labour market, and poor relations at institutional level between the Catholic church and the main Protestant denominations.” According to the experts, a sense of fatalism and a belief that not much could be done about sectarianism was shared in Scotland by legislators, including sports authorities. But this has changed markedly since the end of the 20th century. In the last few years, the Scottish authorities – the Scottish Parliament was only established in 1999 – have done much to combat high levels of inter-personal violence, including sectarianism. In this respect, new legislation was introduced in 2003 designating displays of religious hatred as a new criminal offence.

According to the experts, the “Billy Boys” song originates from the early 1930s, a time of profound anti-Catholic prejudice in Scotland when many groups, including the Protestant Church of Scotland, argued for mass repatriation of the Catholic Irish, who at that time numbered between 15 and 20% of the Scottish population. According to one expert, “Billy was William Fullerton, a Glasgow gang-leader of that period, a violent individual, who was imprisoned regularly for his illegal actions. Fullerton was a member of the Fascist Party and became a „section commander‟ with authority over 200 men and women. The Billy Boys were used by employers as strike-breakers during the General Strike of 1926. Fullerton also founded a branch of the Ku Klux Klan in Bridgeton, Glasgow (this is the ‘Bridgeton’ referred to in the chant “Hello, Hello etc.)”, not aimed at black people, but at the Roman Catholics. Both experts indicated that the term “Fenian” is a collective name for Catholics solely used by hard-line anti-Catholics in Northern Ireland and Scotland and that it derives from a terrorist group, who challenged British rule in Ireland in the second half of the 19th century by planting bombs and assassinating British officials. The lyrics of the “Billy Boys” song thus mean “we are up to our knees in Catholic blood” and are definitely derogatory. The term “Bridgeton” was “widely seen as being the fulcrum of ultra-Protestant feeling in the city of Glasgow.” It was the stronghold of the Billy Boys gang before 1945.

The experts also confirmed that the Scottish authorities, as well as the “Old Firm” clubs, had taken action in order to combat racism and sectarianism. Examples were the Scottish Criminal Justice Act of 2003 or the Blue Guide of Rangers FC, which set out 10-point plans for home and away fixtures. Both Rangers FC and Celtic formed the so-called Old Firm alliance, an initiative working with children across Glasgow to educate them about sectarianism. According to one expert, the campaigns and lobbying of the high-profile non-governmental organisation “Nil by Mouth” had considerably contributed to the new climate of greater awareness of the problem of sectarianism. In December 2005, a cross-party working group of members of the Scottish Parliament produced a report for the Scottish Executive. Indeed, this report praised football clubs for taking sectarianism more seriously, but also recommended more systematic and sterner action against supporters behaving in a sectarian manner.

Two witnesses would then be called to give evidence.  One a high-ranking representative of the Scottish Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in Scotland) who remains anonymous at his own request, and Quintin Oliver, member of the Board of Trustees of the NGO Nil by Mouth, a Scottish anti-sectarian charity. No objections were raised to either.

The anonymous witness, stated that he had no connections with any football club in Scotland. The witness declared that the “Billy Boys” song was part of the hatred between ignorant Protestant gangs and the Irish minority, who had come into Scotland in the 1920s. He also indicated that every Catholic would understand the sectarian meaning of the song. The witness confirmed that the situation had improved in recent years, but the problem was still there. He also disagreed with the Rangers opinion that the opening of the song was not abusive, given that the use of “Billy Boys” was connected to the violent Billy Boys gang of the 1920s. As a result, the witness was convinced that the opening of the song itself was not innocent, as anything likely to arouse religious resentment was dangerous. The witness stated that a non-violent method of maintaining sectarianism was to sing sectarian songs at football matches.

The following is directly from the Judgement issued in the Appeal (emphasis added by the author) regarding the second witness:

Quintin Oliver indicated that he was independent, as the owner of a political consultancy company. He had been on the Board of Trustees of the NGO Nil by Mouth for the last five years. Mr Oliver further declared that he had roots in Scotland, from where his family had moved to Northern Ireland about 400 years ago. He also indicated that he did not practise any religion, but that he came from a Protestant tradition. Moreover, Mr Oliver explained to the audience that he had no relationship with any football clubs, as he was not a soccer fan. The DVD containing an excerpt of certain chants sung by Rangers supporters in both fixtures was played to the witness, who had received the DVD beforehand. He also said he had seen the two fixtures on TV and studied the recording provided by UEFA. He confirmed that he had heard the “Billy Boys” songs, the so-called “sash”, a song celebrating a period of Protestant domination over Catholics, as well as the song “F**k the Pope”. The witness also stated that he could immediately recognise the words “we are up to our knees in Fenian blood, surrender or you will die” in the “Billy Boys” song and claimed that his ear was attuned to this kind of noise.

According to the witness, Rangers supporters were trying to support their team by insulting opposing players and fans from a Catholic country. Mr Oliver was convinced that the singing of these sectarian chants was understood by many people, even outside football, in Scotland and Ireland. According to the witness, it would be entirely wrong to say that this kind of chant had been tolerated by the authorities. Since the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act in 2003 by the Scottish Parliament, authorities and clubs had taken measures against sectarianism in football stadiums. Asked about the public reaction following the challenged decision of the Control & Disciplinary Body, the witness described it as incredulity.

The Judgement issued in this case is lengthy and technical, but within it there is a clear depiction of the rationale behind UEFA’s process (and by extension that which national associations should follow):

The Appeals Body has repeatedly emphasised that racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance not only constitute a serious breach of the fair play principle, but also present a serious threat to sport and its ethical values. In other words, fair play means more than simple compliance with sports rules for the sole avoidance of disciplinary sanction.

The Judgement goes on to reference the principles of strict liability as far as this requirement goes:

According to this clause, the responsibility of associations and clubs does not depend at all on whether they are at fault. As such, this responsibility is in no way identical to the criminal law model. On the contrary, clubs and associations are responsible for incidents provoked by their supporters before, during or after the match, irrespective of their (the clubs’) own fault…..(t)he legislator’s intention …. was to create a rule with a preventive and deterrent effect by ensuring that clubs that organise football matches assume responsibility for their supporters’ actions.

The ruling on the specific points of discriminatory behaviour then followed:

There is no doubt that Rangers supporters chanted the ‘Billy Boys’ song on several occasions at both matches. Moreover, the lyrics ‘F**k the Pope’ could be heard in at least two instances. Apart from the credible witnesses heard today, the press cuttings reporting on the two fixtures mention sectarian chanting. Whereas there is no doubt that a song with the lyrics “F**k the Pope” is discriminatory under UEFA rules, the ‘Billy Boys’ song must be considered in the historical and sociological context. According to the evidence at hand, it is obvious that the ‘Billy Boys’ song, whatever the lyrics, is far from being just a well-intentioned supporters’ song. On the contrary, people from Scotland, when hearing the song, would automatically connect the chant with a general anti-Catholic attitude and the Billy Boys gang of the 1920s that defended fascist values. There is no need to dissect the video footage in order to identify all the lyrics of the ‘Billy Boys’ song as suggested by the defence. The opening words “Hello, hello, we are the Billy Boys”, as well as the melody, are sufficient to make an association with an attitude that is strongly sectarian and thus discriminatory.

It is hopefully clear from the above that the focus is not on specific words. It is not on whether it can be heard. It is the intention behind the singing of particular songs which is paramount.  For those familiar with legal terminology this could be equated to the Mens Rea (guilty mind) being enough even where explicitly discriminatory (whether racist, sectarian, homophobic etc) parts of a chant or song is omitted or changed.

The Judgement went on to clarify this point further and its link to strict liability:

In order to reach this general attitude of mind based on ethical principles, it is essential that any songs linked in any way to discrimination and sectarianism are prohibited on any football ground, irrespective of their wording. All these songs are widely known by their lyrics and melody and can thus easily be identified and combated. It is the defendant’s responsibility to spread this ethos amongst its supporters.

In considering mitigating factors – something very important to any model that includes strict liability and the punishment of clubs for the actions of its supporters – the Judgement concluded:

Although the Appeals Body recognised the efforts of Rangers FC to combat sectarianism, the panel is of the opinion that more can still be done, in particular at matches played at Ibrox. This led the panel to the conclusion that, apart from the disciplinary sanction, the defendant must be given additional directives in order to correctly execute the present award, whose main objective is to outlaw any form of discriminatory and sectarian chanting at football grounds at which Rangers FC is playing a match.

The steps taken by Rangers in this case, lead to the rejection of a punishment of a partial closure at Ibrox.  Instead Rangers were:

  • fined CHF 30,000;
  • severely warned about its responsibility for the future conduct of its supporters in relation to sectarian and discriminatory behaviour;
  • ordered to announce measurable targets in order to reduce sectarian behaviour amongst its supporters and to control their anti-sectarian activities by producing comprehensive statistics that are communicated to the public; and
  • ordered to make a public address announcement at every official fixture, be it international or domestic, stating that any sectarian chanting and any form of the ‘Billy Boys’ song is strictly prohibited.


In 2011 UEFA took interest in two relevant matters.  Against Celtic for “illicit chanting” in a match against Rennes on 3 November (outcome a €15,000 fine). The songs related to Irish political songs. The songs were pro-Irish Republican Army songs. Reports at the time suggest the complaint had been lodged by a senior Strathclyde police officer. During the case it was reported the club escaped punishment from the Scottish Premier League following an investigation into the singing of the same songs by a section of the club’s fans in October.

In April, Rangers were fined £35,500 and their fans banned from their next away Euro game after they were found guilty of discriminatory chanting in a Europa League tie. At the time Martin Bain, then CEO at Rangers was reported to have said of FARE:

 A news report from the BBC around this time notes that:

….(T)he authorities in Scotland have yet to take such action.

This is despite a BBC Scotland undercover investigation revealing sectarian and political singing at matches under the control of both the Scottish Football Association (SFA) and the Scottish Premier League (SPL).

At the Scottish Youth Cup final at Hampden Park, Celtic fans were filmed singing songs glorifying the IRA, while Rangers supporters sang The Billy Boys, with lyrics offensive to Irish Catholics – referencing “Fenian blood”.

Supporters of Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh were also filmed singing sectarian songs during their match with Celtic last week.

The same report goes on to report that it had asked the chief executive of the SPL, Neil Doncaster, if they had taken action against any club for sectarian singing.

He replied: “No we haven’t.”

This mirrors his direct predecessor in the role Roger Mitchell and his candid admission of last week:


Information on the rationale underpinning these two 2011 cases has proved hard to come by due to the information available made available by UEFA relating to that time. The Rangers case however was referenced in a later case (covered in Part 3) so some further information is available. UEFA confirmed that it punished the song “We hate Celtic Fenian Bastards” as a racist chant (referencing the decision of 28 April 2011, pages 2 and 5).

Take-aways from Part 2

The key take away from this we’d ask you to bear in mind as we progress forward through the UEFA case law is that:

  1. It was made clear that strict liability takes into account mitigating factors and it was recognised that attempts were being made – making the punishment less severe;
  2. That UEFA were already showing a tendancy to bundle ‘sectarianism’ with other ‘discriminatory’ behaviour;
  3. That certain songs and phrases, including the Billy Boys, were explicitly considered already to be discriminatory in nature;
  4. Likewise a clear UEFA precedent had been reached and reported (at least to Rangers) regarding the use of the word ‘fenian’;
  5. That UEFA’s answer to a complex problem of understanding particular discruminatory behaviour less widely understood, was to utilise the skill-sets of independent specialists who would be able to understand the nuanced nature of particular social environments;
  6. That by 2006 UEFA already expected Rangers to make significant inroads and efforts into this perceived problem; and
  7. That by 2011 punishments were getting steeper yet there still appeared little appetite for real progressive action in Scotland.

Part 3 of this series can be found here.

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