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catholic letter bombs. Neil Lennon., politics. Scotland. sectarianism. Alex Salmond

Is it possible to ban sectarianism? Computer says no.

       “Technology has given fresh energy to old hatreds and pustulent sectarianism”, Alex Salmond told the Scottish Parliament last week ” I will not have people living in fear from some idiotic 17th Century rivalry in the 21st Century”.   As a non-religious person, I have always found the Catholic-Protestant rivalry in Scotland incomprehensible.  It divides our football teams, schools, housing estates and seems to meet some existential need in male culture. After a decade in which it appeared to be on the wane, the antique divide is back, in a new and bizarre form, with the sending of letter bombs to prominent Catholics, like the Celtic coach, Neil Lennon and the lawyer, Paul McBride.   Where has it come from? and what need does pustulent sectarianism fulfill?  

   I suspect it is a spurious sense of community that leads many to define themselves in terms of religion.   In a post-industrial society defined by rootless individualism, it gives some alienated young men a sense of belonging, of meaning – at least while they are on the football terraces chanting their sectarian hymns.  But what about the rest of their lives?  Its not as if they are exactly ardent church-goers – the decline in kirk attendance has been so great over the past twenty years that estate agents are now doing a lucrative line in selling old churches.  How many of the young men wearing Rangers colours really understand the doctrinal divisions of the reformation – transubstantiation and all that?  Do they really feel that strongly about the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 that they need to send explosive devices to Catholics in 2011?  
   We all abhor sectarianism, and politicians are right to seek to curb the worst forms of it.  But in an age of free speech and Twitter, is it possible to outlaw religious sectarianism?  Look on the internet and you will find no shortage of vile sectarian hatred spewing out on social media, YouTube.  But the singing of sectarian songs is a difficult thing to ban.  After all, many used until recently to be called “rebel songs” and featured in the repertoire of mainstream folk singers.   Similarly, songs like The Sash, which are arguably anti-Catholic, have been around a long time.   I am prevented from discussing other more violently sectarian anthems in this space because, unlike the rest of the internet, I write for a newspaper which has to obey the law.  But it will take approximately four minutes for anyone with a search engine to find violent sectarianism celebrated in song. 

 Last week, the Scottish government confirmed that it intends to make sectarian hate crime on the internet an indictable offence with a penalty of  up to five years imprisonment. Really?  If this is not to become just another empty threat, the police are surely going to be stomping all over cyberspace, collaring the bloggers, tweeters and comment posters who plaster their bile over countless websites. Are they up to it?

   Last year a blogger, Mohammed Sandia, was successfully prosecuted for posting antisemitic comments on the internet, so it is not true that the net is beyond the law.  Indeed, many of the same newspapers who only last week were lamenting the futility of superinjunctions, have this week been calling for a clamp down on other forms of lawbreaking on the web.  Does this mean that internet service providers and hosting companies, as well as individual websites are going to have to behave as responsibly as TV, newspapers and magazines?

    If I gave vent to sectarian hate crime in this column, the editor would go to jail for publishing it and so would I.  There is no reason why this should not apply to an internet publication.  Facebook, YouTube and Twitter operate within a jurisdiction, and are therefore subject to the law of the land, otherwise it could be prevented from operating here.  The problem here isn’t one of law, but of enforcement.  So far the police, politicians and crucially the law officers have not sought to enforce the law on the net.  But the truth is that no one has really tried.  I’m not sure why – they know where they live.  
      Of course, internet libertarians insist that we are living in a new world and that there should not and cannot be any controls on cyberspace.   Judges and politicians are tin pot canutes, they say, incapable of resisting the tide of free speech being unleashed by technology.  The internet entrepreneurs assembled at the first ever eG8 in Paris yesterday accused their host, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy of trying to “harm the internet” by saying that they could not inhabit a “parallel world” where the rule of law and the remit of governments does not run.  

    Well, we all abhor censorship, but most of us also accept that death threats and racial or sectarian abuse should not be published. Nor are we prepared to tolerate the persecution or ridicule of gays, women or people with disabilities.  People may disagree with such controls, but it is the law, and the law is there to be enforced.   Anyway, the internet is already regulated  because sites like Twitter already block spam and posts they know to be illegal.  The police relentlessly pursue paedophile rings that work over the internet with the co-operation of hosting sites and service providers.   If it is possible to trace and prosecute child pornographers it is possible, surely, to pursue anyone who breaks the law, given the will.  Even those who break injunctions. 

    No one likes to see the rich and powerful using money and the law to gag the press.  But even rich people have a right to privacy.  Some years ago, a very senior politician turned to the law to prevent stories appearing in the press about his depressed daughter who was suicidal and had attempted to kill herself.  Life in the Westminster goldfish bowl was proving too great a burden on this delicate personality.  Out of respect, the press agreed to a moratorium on this story, though everyone in the Westminster village knew about it.  Fortunately, this happened before the coming of Twitter.  Should the press have outed the girl and exposed the politician?  Of course not, you say. 

   But the twitteratti might have thought differently.  Indeed, some might argue that it was a conspiracy of silence and that the public had a right to know that this powerful politician had domestic difficulties.  But I am increasingly uncomfortable with the idea arrogant assumption of the internet entrepreneurs that their domains should be above the law.  All this means is that the media becomes a law unto itself.  The point is that freedom of speech has limits, and indeed it is impossible to have real freedom without those limits.  

    Innocent people can be harmed, seriously, by free speech, if it involves hate crime,  sectarian death threats or invasions of privacy.  What if it isn’t the name of a wealthy film star but the victim in a rape trial whose name is blown over the internet?  Where is the public right to know then?  There are important reasons why our law balances a right of public interest against the rights of the individual.    Invasion of privacy can be just as devastating as theft, emotional or sexual abuse, hate crime, blackmail or fraud  

   Social media, and the instant access to the public domain afforded by Twitter, pose a threat to the justice system itself.  Most people welcomed the freedom given to journalists to tweet from the Tommy Sheridan trial.  But what if the tweeters had disclosed inadmissible evidence in a criminal trial?   Contempt of court is not there primarily to save the embarrassment of celebrities, but to ensure that murderers and rapists do not go free because their prosecutions collapse.   Do we really want the internet to be above the courts?   If a witness is on a witness protection scheme, should the internet be free to expose them? If we accept that it should not, then we must accept that the internet should be made subject to the law.  

  I think we may have reached one of those tipping points that internet intellectuals love identifying.   The twin issues of hate crime and privacy injunctions have demonstrated the need for limits to be placed on what can be published on the internet, just as there have always been limits to what can be published in newspapers.    We may be about to discover that websites can be subjected to the law of the land and that this is going to happen through exemplary prosecutions.   Sarkozy is right. No one should be above the law, and if material is published on the internet that is illegal, then the people responsible, the Zuckerbergs, Bezos and Wales, who have made a fortune by commodifying our private lives, may find themselves answering for their actions in court.  The internet is currently like the Wild West., but I think the sheriff has just rode into town.  

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


9 thoughts on “Is it possible to ban sectarianism? Computer says no.

  1. You cannot dictate what people feel. But,if, how they express these feelings has implications for the rest of society who do not share their biased views, then That's where government must step in.For my part I consider the Irish tricolour and the union jack political symbols that have no place in a sporting arena.They should be banned.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 31, 2011, 11:55 am
  2. Why have we just recently seen this posting of bullets and bombs and stuff?Why did we hear and read soo much about two people from some one horse town in darkest Ayrshire having been arrested for posting bombs?If you were going to engage in this activity would you not have the brains to at least not shit on your own doorstep?Why have we heard no more about these two?Why did the BBC in Scotland give it large with these stories all day every day and evening?Where is the big story that was supposed to emerge from the "EXPLOSIONS" heard in woods near Gartocharn?Are all these events connected?There is a history in Scotland of the "security" services using "patsys" to create mythical terrorist happenings from a mythical Scottish Tartan Army, was the proximity of a vital Scottish election to these so called "sectarian atrocities" just coincidence?Was someone practising the well worn and ancient British colonial device of, "divide and rule?"Putting it all together I think it was a rather feeble Pound Shop attempt at causing alarm and despondency in the minds of people, which along with the Royal Wedding and the UKs AV vote was bound to stop the silly Jocks from voting for the SNP?It all went badly wrong then, independence here we come.

    Posted by Key bored warrior. | May 31, 2011, 1:40 pm
  3. Would sectarianism be a serious social problem if all school campuses were shared by pupils of all religious faiths ?

    Posted by Anonymous | May 31, 2011, 8:52 pm
  4. I find the focus on Lennon bizarre and I also find the "Its because he's a catholic from Northern Ireland" argument absurd. Martin O'Neill was the first catholic to captain Northern Ireland's football team and he didn't get this stuff. He also managed Celtic. O'Neill was widely respected in NI and in Scotland. To turn an entire country upside down over this nonsense is unnecessary. Where the old firm are concerned Celtic are equally guilty yet not a single person from that club took responsibility for any of the ugliness we have seen in recent months. What do the Celtic support sing then? Nursery rhymes? I don't think so. I've been to both Ibrox and Celtic Park. The bigots at each place have more in common than they realise. And these are the places where its handed down from generation to generation. These people aren't about religion and God. They know nothing about either. It is at these places where the bigotry thrives and in the homes of the bigots. Furthermore, if the SFA was remotely a responisible organistion itself it would hammer the old firm and especially managers who brawl in front of 60000 fans. So should their clubs hammer those managers instead of "standing by" them when they are bringing the game into disrepute and risking all sorts in terms of public disorder. They should also hammer players who defy match officials, stewards and police. When did Martin O'Neill ever get into shouting matches with players on the opposing side from the dugout and have to be dragged away? When did he ever suggest that other teams had "failed to compete" with Rangers? It simply wasn't his style. The SFA should have punished McCoist just as it punished Lennon over their clash. It should have buried the Rangers player Diouf in bans for his outrageous behaviour in verbally abusing Lennon and then defying officials and Police later in the game. The other Rangers player who manhandled the match official should have been shot in the SFA carpark. Players CANNOT manhandle match officials. That the SFA took such a soft approach to that issue is shocking.The SFA has the powers to ban players, deduct points from clubs and all sorts. That is the only way to haul the old firm into line and get them to, pardon the pun, play ball. Apart from that, if Rangers and Celtic want to say "We do all we can." they need to start making sure every person on their payroll from the managers down behave appropriately and responsibly at all times.

    Posted by Jo G | May 31, 2011, 9:14 pm
  5. "Would sectarianism be a serious social problem if all school campuses were shared by pupils of all religious faiths ?"They already are. : )There is no longer such a thing in Scotland as a "catholic" school. All schools are now obliged to take pupils of all denominations from within their catchment area.

    Posted by Jo G | May 31, 2011, 9:17 pm
  6. Iain, to address your point I think I would agree with the "computer says no" answer. I grow weary of the different laws to cover all these different groups. Gay folks, non-white folks and now this. There was a slogan a few years back. Was it McConnell's? I didn't like him much but I liked the sentiment. "One Scotland, many cultures." I still like it. It says it all for me. It is so much more simple than legislating for every single separate section. That in itself divides don't you think? Let's just punish criminal behaviour without tying a label to it. Mind you, I wonder if Lothian and Borders polis are worrying about being the first casualties after that interview where they accused Gail Sheridan of displaying behaviour associated with Irish Republican terrorists by simply staying silent during her interview? : )

    Posted by Jo G | May 31, 2011, 9:23 pm
  7. What has placing a little union-jack on every seat in Ibrox stadium, before an old firm match, got to do with the 'beautiful game' of football ?

    Posted by Anonymous | June 1, 2011, 9:21 am
  8. Something has to be done or bombs and death threats will continue unabated.I agree, it's a waste of time in general but if a suspect os in police custody and this power could help, then good.Ignoring it won't help.

    Posted by Scottish republic | June 3, 2011, 1:19 pm
  9. Once again Mr Salmond opens his mouth and we all gasp as we think he is about to say something really great, (like the smoking ban was) forward thinking and full of bravery. But no all we get is crap. Alex grow and see that the old firm and songs are not the things that hurt people Songs and chants don't put people in hospital or overstretch our already over stretched NHS. No it is simply this, an education system that needs to be overhauled, you know it, we know it and the RC church fails to recognise it. When are we going to realise that any form of segregation is in the long term bad for society full integration is the only way forward, it will be tough at first but in the end truth and fairness will prevail. And all the ex religious brothers fans will come over to Firhill, Lol.

    Posted by JC | January 5, 2012, 11:44 am

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