Been there, done that, got the T-shirt …

Match Day at Celtic Park, Glasgow (Photo by Amadej Tauses on Unsplash)

A debate I’ve been having this last week with both my First and Second Year students has concerned the tension between the rights to free speech and freedom of expression and the right not to suffer discrimination – all of which are protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Can you say and do what you want even if such actions cause offence to another person? Up to a point, yes, but there are limits to freedom of speech and freedom of expression even in a democratic society which highly prizes such important examples of human rights. If you cross the line which divides acceptable from unacceptable behaviour you may well find that you are accused of a public order offence or, more seriously, hate crime.

To some extent, a case heard last week by the Criminal Division of the Sheriff Appeal Court in Edinburgh indirectly touched on some of these issues (see the Appeals of Daniel Ward, Martin Macaulay and Ryan Walker v Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow [2020] SAC (Crim) 006).

The appeals were submitted by three men who had attended a European Champions’ League qualifying tie at Celtic Park, Glasgow on 19 July 2017.

The background

Celtic FC, which has a predominantly Roman Catholic fan base, was playing against Linfield from Belfast, a Club which is mainly supported by Protestants in Northern Ireland. The men had worn T shirts with Irish Republican imagery to the match – undoubtedly a provocative gesture on their part.

To say that the potential for sectarian unrest at this fixture was very high would be something of an understatement. There had, in fact, been trouble between the opposing fans at the first leg of the tie in Belfast the week previously.

Proscribed not prescribed

The complaint issued by the Procurator Fiscal against Messrs Ward, Macaulay and Walker was set out in the following terms:

On 19 July 2017 at Celtic Park Football Stadium, Glasgow G40 3RE you
MARTIN MACAULAY, DANIEL WARD and RYAN WALKER did conduct yourselves in a disorderly manner within said Celtic Park Football Stadium in that you did attend at a regulated football match there whilst wearing a shirt which displayed an image of a figure related to and in support of a prescribed (sic) terrorist organisation namely The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and commit a breach of the peace.

It is worth highlighting a particular error in the above Complaint issued by Glasgow Procurator Fiscal’s office: there is a very important difference between the words prescribed and proscribed (the correct term which denotes an organisation e.g. a terrorist group which is banned by the State). Whether this error was a typo or ignorance on the part of someone at the Fiscal’s office, I’m unsure.

At the conclusion of their trial at Glasgow Sheriff Court in February 2020, Messrs Ward, Macaulay and Walker were convicted of a breach of the peace.

A large part of the prosecution’s evidence against the trio relied on the testimony of three Police Officers who were on duty at the match. Two of the officers (Constables Stirling and Taylor) served with Police Scotland and the third officer (Constable Nixon) served with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Now, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the Crown had met the requirement of corroboration – which is a fundamental principle of Scots criminal law. Corroboration is the duty placed on the Crown prosecutor to produce at least two independent sources of evidence which will prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.

The Sheriff at Glasgow certainly thought so as all three officers were able to describe the imagery displayed on the T-shirts worn by the three co-accused i.e. a man with aviator sunglasses wearing a black beret and a camouflage scarf with the Irish tricolour as a background.

Appeal against conviction

The three co-accused appealed on a point of law in terms of Section 160 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 that the Sheriff had been wrong in his failure to consider their arguments, namely:

1. That the T-shirts did not convey support for a proscribed terrorist organisation (the IRA); and

2. Their behaviour at the football match was not a breach of the peace.

The testimony of each of the officers on the question of the imagery displayed on the T-shirts was highly consistent, but was it safe to say that the value of the evidence presented by each witness should be treated equally?

Alas for the Crown, this is where a major problem emerged. Absolutely no disrespect to the two Scottish Police officers, but they were not in a position to speak with authority on whether the three men by wearing these T shirts were expressing support for a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Significantly, the Sheriff Appeal Court drew specific attention to the decision in Smith v Donnelly 2002 JC 65 which emphasises that “it has been clear beyond doubt that a charge of breach of the peace requires to specify the conduct involved.

Only Constable Nixon with his direct experience of policing in the febrile environment of Northern Ireland was capable of validating the charges laid out in the complaint. Unfortunately, Constable Nixon’s testimony alone was not sufficient to meet the requirements of corroboration. In a criminal trial, the prosecution case requires certainty not probability.

Reference was made specifically to Lord Kirkwood’s remarks in Fox v HM Advocate 1998 JC 94:

It is a cardinal principle of our common law that no one can be found guilty of a crime upon the uncorroborated evidence of a single witness, however credible or reliable that witness may be. There must be evidence from at least two separate sources which is capable of establishing the facta probanda beyond reasonable doubt.

Consequently, the Sheriff Appeal Court quashed the convictions of the three men. This does not mean that the Sheriff Appeal Court is giving the green light to football fans to display such imagery on T shirts and other garments. Far from it: as the judges commented:

In the particular circumstances which pertained in this case, we would have regarded the wearing of a T-shirt which depicts an image in support of a proscribed organisation, such as the IRA, as so flagrant that the necessary inference could be drawn from it, in the absence of evidence of alarm or annoyance. It is difficult but to conclude that the wearing such T-shirts amounted to a deliberately provocative gesture directed towards the Linfield support. The wearing of such T-shirts in near proximity to the opposing supporters within or around a football stadium is conduct which, if proved, would in our view present as genuinely alarming and disturbing, in context, to any reasonable person.

Had the prosecution focused on corroborating the element of the charge which emphasised support for a proscribed terrorist organisation, the convictions of the three men might well have been upheld.

Football fans would do well to remember that their right to freedom of expression or freedom of speech could be severely restricted by the Authorities in order to prevent the commission of a crime, such as hate crime or public order offences. If you are still in any doubt, let me point you in the direction of the decision in an earlier appeal judgement of the High Court of Justiciary which reminds us that wearing a T shirt with paramilitary imagery can constitute a breach of the peace (see Maguire v Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow [2013] HCJAC).

A link to the judgement of the Sheriff Appeal Court can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/saccrim006.pdf?sfvrsn=0

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 29 November 2020

Scotland’s shame

Photo by Seán J Crossan

Look at the above image: the crime of vandalism? Almost definitely, but put it into context and a more sinister picture emerges that of sectarianism.

The building in the picture is a meeting place of the Loyal Orange Order and it has been spray painted with blatantly offensive graffiti which is diametrically opposed to everything that the Order stands for i.e. the unity of the British State, upholding Protestant religious values and support for the British monarchy. This is not just an act of vandalism: it is also a hate crime; an example of sectarianism.

The vandals, if ever caught, may also incur civil liability for their actions. Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 covers the protected characteristic of religion and philosophical beliefs.

Sadly, these types of incidents can be all too common and both sides of the sectarian divide can be guilty of such behaviour. In January 2019, a young man admitted to a sectarian offence at Glasgow Sheriff Court. While attending an Orange Walk, Bradley White spat on a Catholic priest, Canon Tom White, who was standing at the door of St Alphonsus’ Church when the parade passed by. The incident gained a lot of media attention.

Man who spat on Glasgow priest caught by his own DNA

A sheriff condemned the “disgusting” assault, which took place outside a Glasgow church as an Orange walk went past.

The Scottish Parliament (which first sat in 1999) was keen to address the issue of sectarianism and finally did so by passing the much maligned Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.

The 2012 Act acknowledged that a large part of sectarian division was expressed through the medium of football with reports of disorder at stadia and offensive comments being circulated on social media.

It was also the fact that before the 2012 Act was introduced, Scots Law had an existing arsenal upon which to draw when tackling hate crimes of a sectarian nature, namely:

  • Common law offences
  • Criminal Law (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act 1995
  • Crime and Disorder Act 1998
  • Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003

The 2012 legislation has since been repealed by the Scottish Parliament on the grounds that it was difficult to operate and that it had significantly restricted freedom of speech.

Related Blog article:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/12/26/a-pile-of-mince-or-a-dogs-dinner/

That said, the Scottish Government has not been prepared to leave this area alone and it instructed Lord Bracadale, a retired Senator of the College of Justice to chair an inquiry into the current state of hate crime laws in Scotland.

A link to Lord Bracadale’s recommendations can be found below:

https://www.gov.scot/publications/independent-review-hate-crime-legislation-scotland-final-report/

A secular society?

Although, the United Kingdom is regarded as a largely secular society in that the majority of its citizens no longer profess allegiance to a particular religion, many of the its people come from a distinct religious tradition. Yet, the British State itself has not caught up with these social trends: Queen Elizabeth II is the Supreme Governor of the established Church, the Church of England; and Anglican Bishops still sit in the House of Lords deliberating on and making laws for the country.

According to the British Social Attitudes Survey of 2018, more than 50% of people in Britain stated that they had no religious beliefs.

A link to an article in The Guardian about this aspect of the Survey can be found below:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/11/uk-secularism-on-rise-as-more-than-half-say-they-have-no-religion

The Protestant Reformation

Since the events of the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century, religious and political tensions have been a hallmark of British and Irish culture and society.

England, Scotland and Wales became Protestant countries while Ireland remained overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in its religious outlook.

To proclaim yourself as a Protestant was to pledge your loyalty to the Scottish and English Crowns (there was not yet a United Kingdom, although there was a union of the two Crowns in 1603).

To assert your Catholicism was often viewed as disloyal and treasonous. It could also mean that you could be subjected to criminal sanctions e.g. fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment and even the death penalty.

The Reformation raised Ireland’s already tense and problematic relationship with England to new heights (and later Scotland when James I became King of England).

Suspicion about Roman Catholics’ loyalties were further exacerbated as a result of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605. Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Percy and their co-conspirators were fanatical Roman Catholics who wanted to kill the King and his key Ministers by blowing up the State opening of Parliament. Had the Plot been successful, plans were in hand to re-establish Catholicism as the religion of the embryonic British State.

Sectarianism in Scotland

Historically, religious discrimination or sectarianism in Scotland has been a big problem and has often been referred to as ‘Scotland’s shame’. These tensions really began to surface during the Irish Potato Famine (an Gorta Mór) in the 1840s. Thousands of Irish people – who were overwhelmingly members of the Catholic Church – left their homes and settled in Scotland in search of work and to escape hunger.

This huge influx caused tensions with the local Scottish, Protestant communities. In Glasgow in 1814, there was just one priest – Reverend Andrew Scott – serving the Catholic community. Father Scott supervised the building of St Andrew’s RC Cathedral on Glasgow’s Clyde Street in order to minister to his “vast Irish flock” (James Handley: The Irish in Scotland (1964): 127).

In the years following, many Irish continued to come to Scotland (and other parts of the UK) in search of work. Caused huge social tensions and Irish people were often the target of institutionalised discrimination. In Scotland, this discrimination always had a religious dimension – better known as sectarianism.

Discrimination ran right through Scottish society: Catholics and Protestants went to different schools, attended different churches, lived in separate neighbourhoods and, significantly, supported different football teams e.g. in Glasgow, Catholics supported Celtic FC and Protestants supported Rangers FC; in Edinburgh, Catholics supported Hibernian FC while Protestants supported Heart of Midlothian FC; and in Dundee, Catholics supported Dundee United whereas Protestants supported Dundee FC.

Conclusion

Although religious participation in Scotland has decreased significantly – in line with trends across the UK generally – the echoes of religious traditions can still be heard. In Glasgow and west-central Scotland (where Irish immigration was most heavily concentrated), support for Celtic and Rangers Football Clubs is still a pretty good indication of a person’s ethnic and religious origins.

The Scottish Parliament and Government has tried to take a lead in combating sectarianism – not always successfully. To the credit of the Government and Parliament, they are not prepared to leave the matter and Lord Bracadale’s recommendations on updating existing Scottish hate crime laws are both welcome and timely.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 20 April 2020