Bigotry in Fitba’: A New Tomorrow? – Part 4

Thank you for persevering with this series. There’s been a lot of pretty heavy reading.  The preceding part of this series can be found here and to go right back to the start it is right here.

Latest developments

When we started this series it was with a lot of hope that maybe things had reached a point where lasting change for the better was on the cards. The very evening those pieces were released, the real problems Scotland faces were brought starkly back into focus as Govan erupted along familiar lines.  The very issues discussed in this series were evident as an Irish Unity march was met by loyalist counter-protesters, with riot officers, mounted police, helicopters and dog units all involved in bring normality back.

 

Greater Glasgow Police

Greater Glasgow Police on the disturbance
GCC statement
Statement from Glasgow City Council in the aftermath of the rioting

All of this of course happened ahead of the first Rangers v Celtic game of the 2019/2020 season. The game itself was feisty and strongly contested. While there was a red card for a wild challenge late in the game and two other reckless challenges of note, it was largely pretty fairly contested.  The songbook in such games in recent years had in particular came in for a lot of criticism and would have been well watched by those paying attention to the charges UEFA have brought in recent weeks. Sunday’s game contained way less of the sort of singing that had brought such attention. Before the game Rangers unveiled a TIFO based on an Iron Maiden image.  The image itself may have seemed familiar to many.

 

This brings us back around to some familiar themes from parts 1 through 3. Those that read through the detail would be familiar with the logic applied to The Billy Boys and that alternative versions or being unable to hear the explicitly discriminatory parts were considered to be irrelevant as a defence as the song itself was considered implicitly discriminatory. It was the signature song of a group of violent supremacists. It would be difficult to see how UEFA or – should they elect to tackle similar issues – the SFA, would view a similar thing differently in relation to images. Indeed this is an area they already covered in their deliberations relating to FC Zenit in relation to the 2013 that was referenced in part 3. The criteria by way of reminder are:

… a large number of reasonable spectators or viewers consider a symbol as racist and conclude that the people who displayed it were promoting discriminatory behaviour or ideas, the symbol contravenes the rule forbidding discriminatory and racist messages.

It would be quite conceivable that – though the original image of Eddie from Iron Maiden has no such context – the context in which it was used may carry another in the context of a sectarian divide. The tune to The Billy Boys, now in any form considered to be discriminatory, originated as “Marching Through Georgia” for example.  The crux would actually seem to be how many people would see it and take offence – a question that people with expertise on this exceeding our own should really be answering.

In a Scottish context

If that sounds familiar, perhaps it should do. It is a somewhat similar approach to that taken by the – often derided – Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, passed in 2011 and repealed in 2018.  While UEFA’s approach relates exclusively to actions in and around the football stadiums and broadcast to the wider audience, OBFA had a much wider scope. It is tempting to look at OBFA as a way of tackling the same sort of issues that UEFA were confronting but from which the SFA and wider Scottish football were far more comfortable to ignore. While OBFA seemed to give far too much power to the authorities in terms of determining what would cause offence and when it applies, UEFA seem to have managed to hit a much more effective to wield approach. Its scope is clear and its logic predictable (legal certainty) from case precedent. It is also not stretching things to say that the need for OBFA was largely through an absence of the SFA engaging with the application of UEFA mandated standards within football in Scotland and the Scottish Government’s appetite to move football into modern acceptable standards. This would need to happen while not causing the sort of interference that UEFA would enact its protection from government interference provisions.

Much of the debate that has been prevalent on social media over the last couple of weeks relating to this situation has been about why all of this is now happening. There’s been a strong swell of opinion that it is largely down to FARE targeting the club – perhaps partly driven by Martin Bain’s comments back in the 2006 case (see Part 2).  What this series of articles will hopefully have helped explain is that that is simply not the principle reason.

FARE’s relationship with UEFA started a long time ago and their role in attending UEFA matches is not a new development at all, nor are their visits arbitrary. Despite this UEFA draws its own conclusions on the merits of the case and doesn’t treat them as automatically correct.  During Rangers absence from European competition since 2012, UEFA’s approach to racism and other discrimination has however changed.

When the disciplinary provisions changed midway through 2013, so the punishments became more reflective of the increased seriousness and ‘zero tolerance’ policy UEFA was adopting.  That said there would be a grace period and offences from before this new regime would not count towards the escalation of punishments. This was confirmed shortly after in the appeal against a Lazio decision in which it was deemed in the original decision that Lazio’s poor record should mean that grace period would not apply.  The appeal confirmed that exceptions were not intended. For those who get caught up in the “Same Club/New Club” debate therefore, the treatment meted out to Rangers recently in ignoring the 2006 ‘previous’ is really neither here nor there, but perhaps when the detailed reasoning comes out post December it might show whether UEFA raised the issue.

So, on to the new (since 2013) disciplinary rules. These are the rules, nominally titled ‘Racism, other discriminatory conduct and propaganda’ and often shortened to ‘Racism’ in UEFA’s charge sheets. The same section that was listed in the recent charges Rangers faced.

Give that first paragraph in particular a thorough reading as it is particularly important to how cases involving “sectarianism” will be handled.

It simply does not matter whether the discriminatory conduct that UEFA bring charges on relates to racial discrimination (such as anti-Irish sentiment), religious discrimination (such as anti-Catholicism or Protestantism) or ethnic origin (such as against Irish immigrants or diaspora) – any of them or any combination are equal in seriousness and punishment under the same standards.

Now that might seem a relatively minor logistical matter in terms of setting out rules, but it really is not. What it has meant is that UEFA only need to show that you have discriminated on any of the grounds for a charge to be upheld and the Art. 14 (comparatively serious) penalties to be applied. What it also means is that UEFA consider all types of discrimination that “insults the human dignity of a person or group of persons on whatever grounds” as being of equal seriousness and deserving of equal punishment. For those reasons they no longer feel any compulsion to discern as to which particular bias is most apt as long as there has been a clear breach; while it was this uncertainty that allowed “sectarian” brand discrimination to confuse UEFA back in 2006 until the calling of experts.

Racism – homophobia – antisemitism – religious intolerance …. it matters not a jot which one it was. Does any reasonable person really believe one kind is morally better than another?

The reason that ought to have particular relevance in Scotland is that somehow a narrative has come to be perpetuated that “sectarian” branded intolerance is special. It is a type of intolerance that is somehow ‘tolerable’ despite the ridiculousness of this sentence.  UEFA on the other hand say “No, it is not”. Calling someone or a group an ‘orange bastard’ or a ‘fenian bastard’ is no different in moral standing to calling someone or a group a “black bastard” or a “hook-nosed bastard” or any other disgraceful slur.

Displaying swastikas, throwing bananas or singing about being “up to your knees in Fenian blood” are much of a muchness under such an approach where any insult to the human dignity of a person or people is of equal merit.  That is not however the way that such matters have been treated in Scotland and particularly by the SFA.

Consider this in context with the representations made by the SFA on how it handles these issues in the 2013 Ajax case covered in Part 3:

The Scottish FA did not consider the word “Fenian” racist. It neither warned nor punished Celtic FC or Rangers FC for calling each other “Orange Bastards” and “Fenian Bastards” respectively, since it considered such provocative words part of the game.

The SFA made this submission despite the 2006 case against Rangers having already concluded that “Fenian Bastards” was discriminatory and it being clear from the logic that “Orange Bastards” would be treated the same. During the 2013 case UEFA had seriously admonished the position that the SFA took on this.

IMG_1525

It may be difficult to comprehend how a national association could reach such a conclusion when under its own rules is required to:

(C)omply with the statutes, regulations, directives, codes and decisions and the International Match Calendar of FIFA, UEFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and the Laws of the Game

It may be stating the obvious to point out that during the period between 2006 and 2013 the SFA did not take note of the UEFA ruling on this (a ruling its own decision making is subservient to) and apply the same interpretations to the domestic game that it is responsible for.  ‘Why?’ is a question that deserves an answer though and, to be fair,  believing ‘such provocative words [being] part of the game’ does seem to suggest an interpretation that somehow “sectarian” brand intolerance is different to what UEFA was seeking to punish. It certainly seemed to be the case that when Ajax contacted them to ask why such terms weren’t penalised the same way in Scotland; this was the excuse ventured. Back in 2006 it might even have been believed this was true. After all in the original decision (before the successful appeal) Rangers were cleared, with the rationale somewhat bizarrely being that while the terms themselves seemed unacceptable, it had been tolerated so long in domestic football that it couldn’t now be punished:

After studying the evidence at hand as well as the statement of Rangers FC, the Control & Disciplinary Body conceded that supporters have been singing the song “Billy Boys” for years during national and international matches without either the Scottish football or governmental authorities being able to intervene. The result is that this song is now somehow tolerated. Given this social and historical context, the Control & Disciplinary Body said it considered that UEFA cannot demand an end to behaviour which has been tolerated for years. In view of the above, the Control & Disciplinary Body ruled that, despite the behaviour of its supporters, Rangers FC had not infringed Article 5 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations and cannot be punished according to Article 6.

The common sense approach however would have seemed to be for the SFA to take notice that after UEFA engaging experts as described in Part 2 and reaching the reasoned conclusion that it was no longer tolerable in the appeal, that their historic view of this was now considered to be wrong and a new approach was needed.  Rangers themselves following the 2006 decision made an appeal to fans to cease the ‘sectarian’ songs.  The further punishment in 2011 ought to have removed any doubts the SFA had. In 2013 the approach still hadn’t changed though, to the extent the SFA’s stance was used as a defence against discrimination. Distilled right down this excuse was fundamentally “you can’t call us discriminatory despite having said discriminatory things because your member association allows everyone to be just as discriminatory”. It is little wonder that UEFA seemed unhappy.

The 2013 decision made it abundantly clear that UEFA was unequivocally saying anything that the SFA might term “sectarian” was equal to and dealt with the same way as racism, neo-nazi sympathising or any number of other hate crimes. The SFA’s refusal to listen and implement caused the Scottish government to feel duty bound to do something.  The result was a piece of legislation that was fundamentally confused as to how it could single out societal issues that have a strong resonance within football. The argument becomes circular if you let it. SFA can’t do anything about ‘sectarianism’ because it is a societal issue impacting football: the Scottish government can’t do anything about it because it can’t overly interfere in football matters.

The series of punishments meted out to Linfield for a similar songbook around 2014 to 2016 (see Part 3) should have again cemented the need for the SFA to act, while the IFA’s change in approach to follow the UEFA principles was the blueprint for what the SFA should have done if it were a responsible football regulatory authority. But again – it didn’t, leaving an ill-equipped law to try and pick up the slack. All of this happened under UEFA’s new tougher stance on racism and other discrimination and to a backdrop of sectarian singing from the stands of Scottish football grounds. In Scotland nothing really changed.

And so things moved into the incidents of 2019.  The SFA had done nothing to prepare Scottish football for this new anti-discrimination stance by UEFA or to moderate the behaviour that was evident week in and out and was on a clear collision course. The law intended to compensate for these failings itself failed. It was entirely predictable that Rangers would qualify for European competition and that the much of the regular songbook during 2013-2019 would invite trouble if brought to UEFA’s attention. It was also entirely predictable that FARE would anticipate failures given historical issues. Still the SFA did nothing but wag fingers and tut.

The big question – why?

There has been a tacit acceptance by the clubs too that the deep hatred is a Unique Selling Point for Scottish football and helps keep the tills whirring. The clubs are not innocent of this either individually or collectively (including through the SPFL). It is unspoken but understood. Where does this leave our game though, when 30 pieces of silver buys blindness to moral outrage?

What benefit do the SFA get of it though? The SFA is a member-voting set up that provides a comfortable gig for those in the club. The unnecessarily huge number of small clubs with voting power and the entanglement of the board structures meant that in practice very little has gotten done without a bartering system.  In recent years the major clubs (those the SPFL really represent) have made in-roads culminating in key seats of power on key committees. But the clubs are only responsible for the self-interests of their shareholders too. In this way nothing changes that isn’t good for business – and that business is shareholder interests not that of football fans.  In simple terms if sectarianism is good for revenues, then stopping it is bad for investments.  Neil Doncaster may be nominally in charge of football competition structures, but he is accountable to the investors behind the clubs and they now have a very strong voice within the SFA – with the only counter-balance being a myriad of tiny clubs looking after their own self interests.  The millions of fans of Scottish football have their interests represented mainly by scattered small shareholdings with little real influence at any club.  In the corridors where it matters, their voice is mute unless their wallets are closed.

In this way the bigotry industry has been allowed to subvert Scottish football to the point where the authorities in place to ensure fairness and ethics now actively work against it. Remember the UEFA quote from the 2006 case in part 2?

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.

How does that stack up with ignoring UEFA precedent by the SFA?  The issues in society can be tackled. The issues in football can be stopped. There’s just no real appetite to do it from within Scottish football. Perpetuating it is lucrative.

Conclusion

Everyone loves a great football rivalry, and no-one wants the game to go stale. Somewhere along the lines though it has dehumanised our beautiful game to the point where bigotry has become not just acceptable but marketable. A reckoning is needed where Scottish football needs to decide whether we are in it together or willing to accept being a pariah state of modern moral standards.  UEFA are not going to change their tact – and they shouldn’t as it is correct. This is what leads us to the ‘comply or die’ ultimatum. This is the message that should have been clear when it happened before.

While it is the attitudes and voices that poison our football that are fundamentally in need of change, fans have been let down by the SFA, their clubs and their club associations too.  No-one escapes culpability but it is going to take working in our combined interests to stay relevant and on the right side of history.

Keep the colour, the passion, the bitter rivalries. Especially the noise and drama. Protect the ridicule, the banter and the feeling that we’re looking after something our ancestors were a part of and so will our descendants be. None of that needs hatred as opposed to antagonism pouring from the stands.

Demand instead reform of the SFA and the Club ownership. More than that demand a say so that the fans of the game can make sure our stewards don’t land us in the crap again. Its not like the last 30 years have been golden. Demand the same of our clubs so that the ‘divide and conquer’ of tribal rivalry isn’t exploited at all of our costs and our clubs are protected from the fiscal recklessness of owner self-interests.

The SFA has been a cartel clinging onto self interest for a long time, but the burgeoning bigotry industry has meant holding onto that power required moral slippage. While compromises and bartering can take place to grudgingly move things marginally along, effective stewardship for all Scottish football’s stakeholders requires radical reform of club ownership and voting model. It couldn’t reform the way UEFA wanted because it is hopelessly unable to achieve reform through the gridlock of self-interests. When the Government tried to fill the vaccuum it also failed.

The ultimatum on bigotry that is happening as we speak will take us in a new direction, but what that direction is still needs to be decided. If fans of Scottish football cannot find their voice on the direction that should take, the decision will be made for them.

 

 

 

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