It is hard to think that the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation has had anything but a negative impact on the attitudes and behaviours of those it was intended to manage, despite the Scottish Government’s bullish claims to the contrary.
Whilst the police argued that they required a greater range of powers in order to deal with the perceived escalation in sectarian hatred in connection with some aspects of Scottish football, many others were reluctant to entertain the idea that existing laws were inadequate.
One outcome of this is that the greater range of powers seems to be stretchable to match whichever interpretation of the occasion is deemed to suit, with the interpretation sometimes appearing to be influenced by the media, other times by an inability to understand political context and poor knowledge of historical fact.
As a result, a strong belief has emerged within certain groups, particularly the Green Brigade, that the manner in which they choose to support their team has been criminalised unnecessarily and that some of their members have been subject to police harassment, victimisation and disproportionate response.
Whether the controversial containment tactics used by Strathclyde Police in Glasgow on Saturday were appropriate to the situation has been challenged. Whatever the eventual outcome of that, it is clear that the march was unlawful in the sense that no permission was sought from the local authorities in advance. The police would have failed in their duty had they not intervened.
It is difficult not to acknowledge that the Green Brigade has become a powerful force with strong political views, a fact which may sit uncomfortably with some individuals within Celtic FC. But it is even more difficult to avoid the thought that extinguishing, rather than monitoring, a force of this nature is a primary objective of the police. It may draw into a long and complicated war of attrition. Neither side will back down. Neither side will win.
Whichever way you view it, the central issue remains that the Scottish Government caved into pressure to introduce a piece of poorly written and completely unnecessary legislation. In doing so it managed to create a context of confusion, mistrust and tension – perfectly illustrated by the now toxic relationship between the police and the Green Brigade – and we are still no closer to eradicating the problem of bigotry in Scotland.
Like most, I would be relieved to see the end of the type of bigotry that infects football here. As it happens, I would also prefer that political views were not expressed at football matches in a manner that risked creating the impression that such views were in some way reflective of an unwritten part of a club’s story.
Given the background causes, I am not convinced that either will transpire any time soon – but that neither justifies the Scottish Government’s poorly conceived legislative solution to the problem, nor does it excuse disproportionate police response to perceived episodes of non-compliance with that legislation.
We may have reached an ugly impasse. It is time for a re-think – without the media circus, without politicians positioning themselves to win favour, and this time with people who understand the true nature of the problem in this country.