18 October 2011

"Immanuel Kant should be banned..."

I'm struggling to think of the last time I heard anyone in Scottish politics say "I believe in free expression", without following it with a "but", or some other pious caveat, justifying illiberal legislation to put peoples' tongues in the vice, fetter their fingers, or otherwise curtail free speech. This is not a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, of course. The whole rhetoric of balancing rights against one another lends itself to this sort of discourse, where one can simultaneously avow your watery support for a range of competing propositions - free speech, protection of minorities from "hate", public order - and having recognised a range of entangled interests, and completed the relevant obeisances to all sides, unembarrassedly legislate, untroubled by dissonances as you obliterate the substance of liberty.  All of which is done with a greasy air of self-justification and secular homily; a ludicrous pantomime parade of beetled brows and serious faces, as pompous moral vocabularies are dusted off to justify a range of reactionary reforms.  Politicians assume grave airs to have their photos snapped by Amnesty International - all too happy to condemn repressive regimes abroad for jailing bloggers, writers, speakers - but seem to struggle to find the time even to shrug about domestic outrages.

Yesterday brought the news that Stephen Birrell, contemptible object though he is, entertainer of hackneyed, hateful and bigoted sentiments though he be, has been jailed for eight months for a religiously-aggravated breach of the peace, based on comments he left on a facebook group "Neil Lennon should be banned". If Birrell had decided to defend himself against the charges and been convicted, Sheriff Bill Totten informed him that he would have been sent down for a year's spell.  Let's remind ourselves of what Birrell actually posted online. I refer to the fullest list I have been able to find, quoted by the Daily Record:

"Hope they all die. Simple. Catholic scumbags ha ha."
"Proud to hate fucking tattie farmers. Simple ha ha."
"They're all ploughing the fields the dirrty scumbags. FTP and the 'Tic. WATP. No Surrender."
"Fuck the Fenian bastardsds who have fuck all else to do than talk shit."

Alex Massie has this coruscating piece on the case over at the Spectator, with which I thoroughly agree and would commend to you all. An excerpt:

"This is hardly the edifying stuff or evidence of a cultured mind. But we need not like, far less admire, Mr Merrill to observe that he issued no threats here. Not did he encourage anyone else to threaten anyone else or commit an act of violence. All has has done is express distaste for Celtic supporters in general and Roman Catholics in particular. We might well, indeed should, think less of him for this but even if these postings may well be said to be religiously and racially motivated they are still, in the end, only opinions. And expressing these kinds of opinions in Scotland now risks a spell in prison."

When Sheriff Totten indicated that Birrell should expect a "substantial custodial sentence" for writing these things, I asked: is Scotland is interested in free speech? The answer seems to be "no". Those who are minded to cheer this conviction, are you clear which precise aspects of these posts are to be regarded as criminal? Which of these statements would, could, should escape the sanction? I for one cannot immediately fathom which of these statements the sheriff was willing to regard as a breach of the peace, or whether Totten would hold that all four amount to "conduct severe enough to cause alarm to ordinary people and threaten serious disturbance to the community", which we should remember, is the legal definition of the offence of which Birrell has been convicted.

Surely it is not beyond the wit to come up with a range of circumstances in which folk might break down Birrell's acronym and write "Fuck the Pope", whether online, or uttering in person, or painting it on a placard.  Within seconds, a quick search on the t'internet furnished this example (top right).  Whether a robustly-worded protest against the actions or perceived actions of an individual pontiff, dissent from the Catholic hierarchy's line on homosexuality, on contraception or abortion, there are a range of situations in which the acronym Birrell used could reappear. What about vehement and indicting Protestantism, which sees the status of the Bishop of Rome as a grotesque subversion of true religion?

What about slagging off other canons of faith, however eccentric? Mormonism? Scientology? No doubt the tender rinds of these respective temples feel decidedly traduced if they are called a cult, or their cherished beliefs held up to general ridicule.  No doubt both could make the case that they are troubled minority religions, and that permitting intensely disparaging sentiments to be expressed about them tends to lead to their dehumanisation and encourages their persecution.  Even if our putative anti-Mormon or anti-Scientologist didn't actually threaten anybody with any violence, by advancing poisonous discourses about these faiths, he invites others to regard followers of Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard as less deserving of human respect, and by this diminishment, more at risk of general mistreatment. If this is a plausible theory with respect to Birrell's hackneyed anti-Celtic, anti-Catholic sentiments, I see no way of avoiding following the logic with respect to different "religious" groups, and for that matter, with speech which tends to dehumanise disabled people, or our homosexual and transgendered fellow citizens, who we know are significantly more at-risk of experiencing violence and abuse in Scottish society.

But where does that sort of logic leave us? What sort of hobbled freedom remains to any of us, when the terminally offended are given privileged access to the forces of law enforcement, to have the terminally offensive banged up, simply for expressing their views? And just who should be entitled to have their feelings of being offended and mocked recompensed by our state law anyway? Imagine Birrell was a modern philosophical utilitarian who regards the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant as an intolerable perversion of human thought, and who hates all Kantians with a burning, furious zeal for rejecting "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" as a basis for ethics. On his "Immanuel Kant should be banned" facebook group, he adds the following observations:

"Hope they all die. Simple. Kantian scumbags ha ha."
"Proud to hate fucking Kantians. Simple ha ha."
"They're all treating people as ends in themselves and never just as a means to an end, the dirrty scumbags. FIK ("Fuck Immanuel Kant) and the CI ("categorical imperative"). WATP. No Surrender."
"Fuck the Kantian bastardsds who have fuck all else to do than talk shit."

It is no more immediately implausible that Birrell-the-anti-Kantian should be locked up for this, than Birrell-the-anti-Catholic. Consider yet another scenario. Say I'm a Scot who believes, foolishly, in Scottish ethnic integrity and racial distinctiveness, endlessly pursuing the theme in my conversations online and in my local pub. My ethnic nationalism finds expression in a deep-seated mistrust of anything tagged English, whom I enthusiastically loathe on a personal and collective basis. We need not go into the eccentric manias that might animate such hate, or explain its origins. Merely reformulate Birrell's remarks with an anti-English orientation, on a hypothetical "England should be banned" group. 

"Hope they all die. Simple. English scumbags ha ha."
"Proud to hate fucking English. Simple ha ha."
"They're all drinking tea the dirrty scumbags. FMC ("Fuck Magna Carta"). WATP. No Surrender."
"Fuck the English bastardsds who have fuck all else to do than talk shit."

English folk represent a significant minority in Scotland, and there is clear evidence that such Anglophobia can lead to abuse, bullying and even disgraceful physical assaults. Sauce for the goose is surely sauce for the gander. Are you all entirely content that my anti-English Scot share a cell with Birrell-the-anti-Catholic and Birrell-the-anti-Kantian? Perhaps you are, but if so, you are an authoritarian whose impulses are practically indistinguishable from far-flung regimes you likely purport to deplore, uninterested in liberty, whatever floppy occasional recognition you may give to the idea that we should be able to traffick in our ideas freely.  I've only got a black laugh, a mordant hoot, for anyone who believes themselves to defend free speech, but who is willing fully to support the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of this character for these crushingly banal, commonplace and hackneyed phrases; an odious little creep banged up for echoing phrases nobody believes are particular to him, or originated with him. Birrell is a moronic driveller amongst a crowd of moronic drivellers. For anyone celebrating this prison term, your support for liberty of expression is utterly contemptibly spineless, unprincipled, phantasmal and your lifeless words in support of it entirely delusional.  Scotland's shame indeed.


  1. Excellent post LPW - agree wholeheartedly with you and with Alex Massie (gave up on the Spectator after John Glashan died but Massie is a good reason to haunt the site).

  2. What is missing from your account is that these postings were on a site, the sole purpose of which was to stir up hatred against Neil Lennon, at a time when he (and two others) had been receiving bullets and bombs in the post.

  3. Let's just be honest here. This guy is a ned.

    He has previous convictions for a firearms offence, for chibbing someone with a Stanley knife blade, he has been done previously for sectarian abuse and has other convictions for breaches of the peace, bail violations and minor drugs offences. He also slashed his girlfriend with a machete when she was pregnant.

    So he's a ned. You just have to look at his picture in the Daily Record frankly to know you would not make eye contact with this guy and you would cross to the other side of the road if you saw him coming and he had a drink in him.

    And that's what makes this not about freedom of speech.

    When people like that say proud to hate Fenian tattie farmers they are not just expressing an opinion. It's not about the cut and thrust of debate. If anything is cutting and thrusting it is more likely to be a Stanley knife.

    So that is the proper context in which to have this discussion. He is a ned, he is a dangerous person, he has a history of violence, he is full of hate.

    Nevertheless you could question why his facebook postings attracted a sentence of 8 months, especially when he only got 18 months for stabbing his pregnant girlfriend with a machete.

  4. You'll not forget that a councillor in (I think) Wales was pursued by their Standards authority for an aside about the scientologists which was both accurate and funny. The prospect of a law in Scotland will give further licence for those who are seeking to persecute fair expression of opinion.

  5. I'm a little confused, are the Scottish courts choosing to ignore entirely the three-part test enumerated in Sunday Times v UK for limiting free expression? Excellent article LPW.

  6. Many people seem to take the view that this conviction is proper because the comments occurred in a context where there is direct violence occurring. Indeed, Glasgow has a very serious problem with sectarian violence all the time. However, it is my view that this type of speech is never the source of such violence but is, like the violence, just a symptom of a deeper problem. Banning this type of language only pushes it underground where it becomes more difficult to examine and to challenge. Right thinking people should vigorously attack speech such as this at every opportunity. If this speech is illegal, then where's the opportunity?

  7. Actually the sherrif took the view that a custodial sentence was appropriate primarily because of the accused's record of having been the source of a considerable amount of violence in the past.

    "I am satisfied that the nature of this offence, and in particular your previous record, means that I require to impose a prison sentence on you".

    Had he been someone with a blameless record I doubt he would even have been arrested, never mind charged or convicted.

    Common sense tells us that when the police are looking at stuff like this they are looking out for people with a record of violence, not just random types letting off steam on the internet.

  8. Thinking of all the things I as a Lib Dem have been called in the last 18 months, I'm sure I could demand the imprisonment of many if I were so minded. Of course I'm not going to. There is a world of difference between a repetition of hate filled nonsense & a direct, specific threat or incitement to violence. So, the individual who described me as a lying, obscene, disgusting racist Nazi whore the other week is entitled to express his warped opinion. On the other hand, somebody saying I'd be in a specific location a week on Wednesday and inviting people to join him to beat 7 bells out of me should quite rightly feel the force of the law.

    It is a great pity that disproportionate sentences on spurious charges such as in this case lead to us talking about this pretty horrible character as a victim of injustice. We should be tackling the underlying culture and this simply fails to do it.

    This man is a horrible character. I

  9. @Indy, the fact of previous offences should not make an offence out of something which is not. It can and should influence sentencing, but it does not make out a charge. This is the problem I have. I do not believe these actions constitute an offence. Certainly not aggravated breach of the peace.

  10. 'There is a world of difference between a repetition of hate filled nonsense & a direct, specific threat or incitement to violence.'

    1. the postings were on a site the sole purpose of which was to evince hatred against a specific named individual.

    2. that individual had in the past been subject to credible death threats from loyalist paramilitaries, been physically attacked in Glasgow on three separate occasions and, at the time of this offence had been receiving bullets and viable explosive devices in the post.

    3. the accused had a record of serious physical violence.

    This is a world of which you, LPW and your ilk have no experience or understanding and your opinions should be treated accordingly.

  11. Perhaps as part of this guy's sentence he could be made to clean the windows across from my old flat in Glasgow, after some Rangers fans apparently broke in after an Old Firm match and sprayed "Fuck The Pope", "RFC", "UVF" and "BNP" on the window. Of course, being knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, they didn't realise that spraying them the right way round from inside meant people outside couldn't read what they said.

    Unless your bathroom mirror happened to point opposite the window. Which mine did.

    As an atheist Aberdeen fan, I found it quite irritating (especially as the council showed no signs of wanting to clean it up, despite being asked). I often wonder how I would have felt if I was a catholic Celtic fan. I firmly believe that religious people have no right to expect any greater protection against derogatory remarks about their chosen religion than a vegetarian would about their choice to avoid meat. However, this stuff can be a source of disgust just by highlighting the fact that there are such moronic fools roaming the streets.

    In short, I'm not sure what i think about this.

    Incidentally, I think you have a mistake with your final example there. I don't think the kind of moron who writes "no surrender" would be slagging off the English...

  12. Flay - what you are saying is that you don't think it should be an offence to post comments like that on the internet. That's one debate.

    But the fact is that it is an offence and it is quite logical to take into account the background of an accused person when considering what is an appropriate sentence. And as I pointed out the police are also highly likely to take into account whether a person is already known to them when they are investigating complaints in the first place.

    That's why I find the knee-jerk liberal response of oh we are all now at risk, freedom of speech is being trodden on etc etc tiresome. You are not at risk because the police are not interested in you and they are not interested in what people put on comments on your blogs. In the whole history of political blogging has anyone ever ended up in hospital because of it? No. So it really doesn't matter what anyone says. There is no real threat and no real cause for alarm, ergo the police don't care what people say to you Caron or what you say to them.

    But they will take an interest in sites which are visited by known offenders and rightly so because any threats made on them could be considered credible.

    Equally, much as the knee-jerk liberalism annoys me, I don't think it is fair to say LPW etc have no idea what they are talking about. There are very valid questions about how the law should be applied but I would like to see the discussion being a bit more grounded.

  13. I fear Peat Worrier demonstrates uncharacteristic stiffness of the mind. I am deeply ambivalent as to the outcome of this case because it is not one of absolutes. On the one hand, I share LPW’s Voltairian sentiment but also concur with others’ comments that “context is all” – although Birrell’s past convictions are, to my mind, and as Flay writes, relevant only to sentencing.

    I don’t believe it’s wrong to say “I believe in free speech, but...”; the never-ending search for an answer to competing rights and responsibilities is a delicate balance. Writing Fuck the Pope as a protest against Benedict XVI’s rejection of liberation theology is something quite different to what Birrell has engaged in. Peat Worrier’s thought experiment substitutes Birrell’s words for Kant and English but try the more relevant Irish or Nigger or Jew. Are there “aspects of these posts [] to be regarded as criminal?”, perhaps, in the violent context of ongoing physical attacks, yes.

    Scotland isn’t alone in wrestling with demons of hatred. Twelve EU member states have laws criminalising Holocaust or genocide denial. Do the governments of Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain hobble the freedom of their peoples by thus legislating? Maybe, a little. Are their actions justified given the context? Certainly the European Commission on Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights (LPW’s specialised subject), the European Union Commission and the United Nations Human Rights Committee certainly think they are.

    I consider myself an ordinarily robust guy in mind and body. As someone against whom Birrell’s sentiments are targeted (although I take an atheistic philosophical position I am sure this is not material to Birrell) does his conduct cause me to feel “alarm”, definitely yes; do I think his actions threaten serious disturbance to the community? A lifetime in the West of Scotland would rather suggest to me: yes.

    The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is a document of which we can all be proud. Article 19 concerns the right to hold opinions and freedom of expression. 19(3) states that the freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities and may therefore be subject to certain restrictions... provided by law. Undoubtedly Birrell failed in his responsibilities and I’m not entirely convinced, despite Peat Worrier’s indignation, that the conviction and sentence were unjustified.

    LPW, I am grateful for your articulate reflections that challenge the unthinking – though well intentioned – reaction of so many people in Scotland who do not think twice about locking Birrell up but I am not wholly convinced that a reasonable balance has not been struck by the Court.

  14. @Indy, but it is not an offence in itself, which is why it was prosecuted as common law breach of the peace, which I find really specious. It will be an offence if the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill passes. What an absurdly titled piece of legislation!

    This is a knee-jerk liberal response is it? I think actually what we have is a knee-jerk authoritarian command-and-control response in the first instance. The fact that I am not at risk is irrelevant, because I could easily be at risk under other circumstances. It is the scumbags such as Birrell who say unpleasant things that bother the majority of people who are the ones that need the most protection unfortunately. That has always been the case with speech. Those who say "appropriate" things do not really need protection. Does banning this type of speech actually help to curb violence? I seriously doubt it. It's not the speech that causes the violence. It's the hate. Tackle that. It is a centuries old problem that is handed down from father to son and this is at best a band-aid solution.

  15. Let's also bear in mind that we don't have all the information. I am eager to read the full judgement and I'm perfectly prepared to agree this was an appropriate conviction if that is the conclusion which follows. At the moment though, on available information, this case seems like a massive over reach.

  16. The knee-jerk liberal response Flay is to claim, as Caron did, that she could now demand the prosecution of people for saying nasty things on her blog. No she couldn't. And it is displayed in suggestions that anybody, in any circumstances, who wrote FTP would be running the risk of ending up in jail. No they wouldn't.

    We need to ground this in some kind of common sense.

    As I said the police do not care about political or moral or even genuine religious debate on the internet or anywhere else because it does not end in bloodshed.

    In what circumstances do you, for example, think you could "easily be at risk" of being prosecuted?

  17. @Indy, that's a fair question. There are a couple of instances that spring to mind and they tend to divide opinion.

    1. The famous Twitter Joke Trial in which a man of previous good character was convicted of an offence for tweeting "Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together or I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" That was joke, or something very like a joke. That could have been me.

    2. A 19 year old young woman from Wakefield, W Yorks put a joke event on Facebook on the 9th of August during the UK riots. It was for the Saturday and Sunday and titled "Wakey Riots" and in the description or body she wrote "Who's up for it? LMFAO." I know what she meant. She meant that the thought of riots on the high street in her town was absurdly ridiculous. At the same time she probably thought the idea was frightening. People like to joke about things they find frightening. At any rate, she is currently being prosecuted for incitement under the Serious Crime Act. Yeah, in certain circumstances that could have been me.

    It's important to protect provocative speech.

  18. Well Flay neither of those cases happened in Scotland so I don't think they could have happened to you.

    I am not saying that there can't be over-reactions - there can be.

    I haven't caught up with what happened to the boy who was arrested after suggesting on facebook that people gather at Helen Street in Govan to riot and attack the police station but my first reaction was how silly - this boy is clearly a numptie.

    Who else would suggest massing to attack the most secure police office in the country? (In case you don't know Helen St is where they keep the terrorists and high security suspects, it's like Fort Apache). But maybe he is not being prosecuted.

    To me it does not come down to what people say - it comes down to whether or not they pose a credible threat to the people they are having a go at. If they do, then it is justified for the police to get involved. If they don't, then it doesn't really matter what they say.

    In this case, like you, I do not know all the details but I know thie accsued has a history of violence with a string of prior convictions who was posting comments on a facebook site attacking an indivdual whose family were basically under police protection because he was being targeted in a hate campaign.

    That is so not the same as people exchanging views on political or other matters and it's just silly to pretend it is.

  19. As someone else has already pointed out LPW this totally lacks context........and as an amatuer history tutor I forever parrot that context is everything.

    Can we just establish if you believe that Scotland (southern and western parts most certainly) has issues with anti-Catholic discrimination? I don't mean so much in the jobs market anymore but with peoples views and manifestly in the hundreds of orange marches and majority of Rangers fans who belt out anti-Catholic songs.

    If you don't then your article stands, and you are not who I thought you were. If however you do to whatever extent agree then your article is a nice abstract piece that has no particular relevance outside of philosophy. This part worries me;

    >>.....our homosexual and transgendered fellow citizens, who we know are significantly more at-risk of experiencing violence and abuse in Scottish society.<<

    Really?!?! We aren't really in a position to compare and contrast considering that the statistics detailing anti-Catholic attacks have been destroyed as a matter of 'routine'

    Rather than using the 'Kantian' example perhaps niggers and slavery or yids and exploiting the people are better examples. After all the tattie/tottie thing is just a euphemism for the famines in Ireland.

    Freedom of speech is great but has been used by our sheriffs time and time again to limit our other freedoms. Especially where councils want to limit orange marches after previous disorders. Let's take the example at an airport now, if you joke in any way shape or form about bombing, hijacking or shooting down you are likely to be charged and face the courts. Make a joke like that in 99.99999% of other places and you are an eedjit! I have no issue with someone disliking the Pope or shouting 'Fuck the Pope' however the ned that repeatedly circled my 70yr old mother-in-law deliberately saying this under his breath was merely targetting an elderly female member of a local family of Taigs.

    There goes that context again.

  20. @Indy, actually I live in England, but that's beside the point. While Scotland lacks the incitement related provisions of the Serious Crime Act, this extension of BOTP gives me more concern because it has no burden to prove intent. Even if this doesn't affect me personally, it could easily affect someone like me. I see no reason why this common law approach could not be applied in other areas.

    The Communications Act, on the other hand, does apply fully in Scotland. This is the law that prosecuted Paul Chambers over Twitter Joke Trial and also some others over riot related online speech acts. I found many of those cases to be extremely dubious. Also a decent woman I know who lives in Glasgow is being tried under the same provision as TJT (section 127 of CA2003) for an off hand remark made on Twitter about her councillors after they went ahead with a controversial planning project. She said something like "I hope they all die horrible deaths because that's what they deserve." That is the expression of a fanciful wish, not a call to action. After hearing about this Birrell case she is very worried for herself. I can't say I blame her.

  21. That is interesting - what councillors, if you don't mind me asking? Because I live in Glasgow and I have heard nothing of this. If someone is being prosecuted for a throwaway remark about her councillors in Glasgow that would be of great interest. Many people say nasty things about their councillors - indeed councillors have been known to say nasty things about each other from time to time. But there has been no gossip or press reports at all about someone being prosecuted, which is surprising.

  22. I agree in principle with you, but am conflicted. That child who killed himself in America recently because of bullying comes to mind. I'm not advocating that children be prosecuted for bullying, but I wish there were more effective ways to halt the harmful effects of horrible hate-speech (without curtailing so called freedom of speech.)
    As you say, it's about weighing rights against each other. I think context and power relations should always be taken into consideration.

  23. On your theme Lallands, I think Birrell is a mental schema Kant too...

  24. @Indy - All I know is that it's East Dunbartonshire council. No idea what development this was about or who the councillors are. It happened back in June/July.

    On something else you said earlier:
    "...who was posting comments on a facebook site attacking an indivdual whose family were basically under police protection because he was being targeted in a hate campaign.

    That is so not the same as people exchanging views on political or other matters and it's just silly to pretend it is."

    ...I saw the following on STV:
    "The sheriff told Birrell that he had escaped a longer sentence because his comments had not made specific threats against individuals."

    Indeed, none of the four remarks I've seen appear to attack any particular person. Anyway, I'm not pretending this is the same as exchanging political views. It is not, but it does not need to be. The speech does not need to have any intrinsic worth or merit in order for it to be protected. It just generally needs not to infringe on the rights of others. This speech has been construed as such, but that is a stretch. No one has the right to not be offended. I simply do not accept that this speech act places anyone in any danger. There may be more to it of course. We'll see.

  25. I have just remembered another case actually where the law was an arse - the case of the boy in Clackmannanshire who was done under the Terrorism Act on quite ridiculous grounds, including the fact that he told the girl he sat next to in college that he was in Al Quaeda.

    Again, common sense would suggest that if he actually was a terrorist it was unlikely that he would boast of it to a girl at college. It seems far more likely that he was in fact guilty only of being a diddy.

    Of course it's not exactly the same thing but I do fully accept that sometimes the police and the courts can go over the top.

    But the difference is surely that there was no real evidence to suggest that the Clackmannanshire boy (can't remember his name) was a terrorist whereas the police had clear evidence that Birrell had a history both of sectarian behaviour and of stabbing people, so his comments had to be viewed in that context.

  26. @Indy I do take your point. There does at least seem to be a difference. However, others may disagree. Others I speak to occasionally have said that Paul Chambers (of the TJT) ought to have gone to jail for wasting police time. I'm sure there are some who would say that your boy from Clackmannanshire ought to have gone to jail for similar reasons. I know that there are many who believe that poor hapless Hollie Bentley of Wakefield, W Yorks (with no previous offences and no history to suggest violence) is a horrible person who deserves to go to jail. In every instance this needs to be at least questioned.

    As a classical liberal I take the view that authorities wishing to exercise power over us are self serving and should be viewed with scepticism and suspicion. This is healthy. The law wants quick open/shut convictions. But we as individuals are innocent until proven guilty. This is true even of someone with a previous history of violence. It has been reported that Birrell had trouble seeing the seriousness of what he had done. I have trouble seeing it too, distasteful though it is. Of course he went and pleaded guilty, so I guess he gets what's coming. I just think the charge was wrong.

  27. Sure, but the other side of that argument is that people like Birrell also want to exercise power power others. The power of fear and intimidation. So to what extent does society agree to allow that?

    That is a difficult question - but it's where the comparison between gay demonstrators carrying a banner saying FTP and sectarian bigots saying FTP falls down. Because how often do you hear about gay people battering Catholics? To my knowledge never. It just doesn't happen.

    So they can say what they like in a sense, even if it causes offence, because there is no prospect of that being translated into violence.

  28. On some other occasion Mr Birrell may well decide to use fear and intimidation against Catholics or Celtics supporters or what have you. On this particular occasion he was pissing about on Facebook being unpleasant but not really directing his energy at anyone in particular. I maintain that speech does not make people violent. People become violent because they have that inclination. Intimidation and harassment together are a different type of speech which is directed at a particular person or persons, not at a characteristic that is shared by a group of people. This is much more personal and threatening. Making derogatory remarks about a race, religion or supporters of a football team is not intimidation. It is just annoyance. I don't think Birrell intended with his remarks to cause a disturbance. I have no doubt that if breach of the peace was what he had in mind then he could find much more effective ways of committing that which involved actual violence. You could even argue that allowing him to vent his pent up hatred in a forum such as this makes him less likely to commit acts of violence. Looking at his four remarks that have been published, I can't see these as being particularly likely to incite violence in others. Let these arseholes bullshit with each other. At least it keeps them off the streets.

  29. Come on, Neil Lennon has been the target of a massive level of intimidation ever since it was reported that he allegedly said that he would like to play for a United Ireland team. As a consequence of that he has never really been safe since. The facebook sites that the police investigated revelled in that - at a time when not only Lennon but other targets were being sent bullets and explosive devices in the post. Including the former Deputy Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament because she had once worn a Celtic top in public.

    You argument seems to be that celebrating that fact, saying yes I hope they all die, cannot be seen as behaviour that would cause fear and alarm because it's not directed at an individual. No it's not directed at an individual, it's directed against all Catholics. And it's being directed against all Catholics by someone with a track record of sectarian behaviour and stabbing people.

    So yes it is a difficult judgement to make - at what point that kind of talk becomes a crime. But I can't agree with you that speech doesn't contribute to violence, it does. I have never seen a fight which was not preceded by angry words, have you? Words can be dangerous if they are allied to a propensity to violence. It would obviously be a lot easier if facebook pages like that could just be taken down and I am not sure why they can't be since they clearly breach facebook's rules. You wonder if enough has been done to force facebook or other website hosts or internet providers to be a bit more proactive about taking down sites that are associated with intimidation and violence. But then maybe you would see that as curtailing free speech as well.

    I just wonder to what extent you have tried to put yourself in the shoes of the targets and considered the fear and alarm which such talk can genuinely cause.

  30. A page such as that does not breach Facebook's rules. There were pages dedicated to glorifying Raoul Moat. The Home Office tried to have them taken down but Facebook refused. It is perfectly acceptable for a person to say "I hope all Catholic scum die." I am telling you this as someone who was raised Catholic and whose family are all Catholic, though I am an atheist. If you walk into a Celtic supporting pub and yell "Die you Catholic scum!" then you are creating a disturbance, clearly. If you create a web site which has nothing on it but the four things that Birrell is reported to have said and post links to it on social networking sites, then it would not be creating a disturbance. It would be ludicrous to arrest someone for that.

    Speech online actually has a number of advantages over speech in person. People can argue and get really nasty without ever being in any immediate danger. Someone might take it too far and create a disturbance in the real world, but that is the crime that needs to be punished. We are all responsible for our own actions. If someone is inspired to violence by something I've said, that is not my fault unless I intended that. BOTP here is a real problem because it is not necessary to show intent.

    "To prove a Breach of the Peace the most important things to prove is that someone was Alarmed, Annoyed or Disturbed by the incident."


    Jesus. And not only that, but it can possibly incur a sentence of life imprisonment. This is for something in which intent is inferred. I'm not comfortable with that here. Those two guys from Cheshire who each got four years for riot related Facebook posts were charged with offences which have a very strong burden to prove intent. They happened to plead guilty. This guy Birrell seems to have breached the peace simply because a PC felt that was so and a sheriff agreed. How hard is it to find someone who is "Alarmed, Annoyed or Disturbed" by an incident such as this? There are several on this thread. This is a terrible precedent. You can say that the police won't use it in ways that most would find objectionable, but that's not good enough. They should not have that arbitrary power.

    This may be naive, but it seems to me that the best way to tackle this problem is for the two clubs to lead by example. They need to establish real good will between themselves and make it clear that they do no want the support of people who perpetuate this sectarian violence. Will they do this? Does the Pope shit in the woods? These two clubs, Celtics and Rangers, are the problem. It's not religious, it's not about something as grand as Home Rule. It's just frigging football. It's like Red Sox versus Yankees (baseball). I have known of people being beaten up or spit on just for wearing a Yankees cap in Boston. This is more extreme than that, but it is the same problem really. The responsibility should lie with the clubs, so their half-hearted joint task force to route out extremism is really offensive to me actually.

  31. Been a very good thread. Am with Flay that it would help enormously if Rangers and Celtic could at least pretend to have a united front.

    Re the horrible Birrell I am on the side of LPW and his backers. I have heard Tartan Army 'footsoldiers' chanting 'If you hate the fucking English clap your hands' - if challenged they would doubtless say it is just 'banter' instead of hate speech. No idea what they say on their websites, but if such chanting does not come under the proposed legislation then what does? And does anyone expect to see any of the perpetrators brought to court?

  32. Doesn't his "WATP" come from psalm 95 and indicate of the unbelievers that “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways. Therefore I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest” (WATP coming from earlier in the psalm - "we are the people of his pasture" - separating all into chosen people and the others)?

    Not that I think this eejit has ever read a psalm in his life but it is an explanation of why 'activist protestants' use WATP in an aggressive manner and more likely than the usual Citizen Smith 'power to the people' answer of it.

  33. Oh good let's just blame Celtic and Rangers as we have done for donkey's years and well let's hope it get's better.........eh well that has worked thus far hasn't it? Well hasn't it?

    What a load of horseshit!

    I am tired of debating grand philosophy with people who will forever look to assauge the fears of those who might, just might be forced to change by threat of the gaol. There is no equilibrium in the culpability of celtic and Rangers regarding sectarian behaviour past or present. The gulf is there for all to see and I am happy to cite relevant examples, but like the wood for the tree's people refuse accept it. let's stop the comfy lies that allow us as a society not to take decisive action, and in doing so allow the guilty to evade the spotlight.

    So we can go on blaming Catholic schools and celtic while UEFA shake their heids and impose sanction after sanction for anti-Catholic discriminotary behaviour. And the weans rush to hide their celtic tops and crucifixes on hearing the big drums less the bad men see them as a target.

    C'est la vie!

  34. I'll tell you what, @Tony. I'd rather ban the entire sport of football in Scotland and around the world than make it a crime to say "Hope they all die. Simple. Catholic scumbags ha ha.", because it's a slippery slope. Very slippery indeed. Of course we should assign blame (or at least responsibility) to Celtic and Rangers, but no you/we should not sit back and hope it gets better. Demand that it gets better. The clubs are perpetuating this crap and they are delegating to the police the job of reigning it in. Your argument seems to be more of the sort of "they get away with it so why can't we?" type of arguments you might hear in the playground. Sorry, but I know horseshit when I smell it. Stephen Birrell is guilty on this occasion because that's how you feel. Now the law has backed that up. It's wrong. There was no offence committed. The wider implications of a judgement like this should be cause for enormous concern as I've gone to great pains to point out. If you want peace from sectarian violence, attack the hate at its core. To punish the expressions of that hate where there is no evidence of actual harm is not just dangerous, it is also fruitless.

  35. Flay

    >>Your argument seems to be more of the sort of "they get away with it so why can't we?" type of arguments you might hear in the playground.<<

    I said no such thing. Quite insulting really.

    >>If you want peace from sectarian violence, attack the hate at its core.<<

    This is actually what I was saying. God knows how you managed to conflate the two.

    >>To punish the expressions of that hate where there is no evidence of actual harm is not just dangerous, it is also fruitless.<<

    Not sure how you have managed to miss the contradiction here with you advocating not blaming the ned...........yet seeking to attribute blame in whatever way to how this manifests itself at Celtic and Rangers. Even though you still erroneously insist on putting Celtic into the same culpability box as Rangers.

    You are way off kilter regarding blaming football at all actually. Pre-fitba days while catholic families numbered in the dozens there were scores of anti-Catholic organisations in Glasgow. There is little anti-Catholicism in the north-east despite similar numbers of Irish emigration (especially Dundee) but without the orange immigrants who settled in the west.

    This is a societal problem that hasn't been and won't be solved by lazily blaming Celtic and Rangers(sic). We allow bigots virtually unfettered access to trail triumphantly each year, spouting their anti-Catholic bile in the guise of legal marches by the hundreds May through September. Further Sheriffs have been allowed to have a default position whereby Art 8 rights are superceded at every turn by Art(s) 10 and 11 et al. No council can with any safety ban an orange march no matter how much disorder there has been and no matter how much a coalition of council residents, businesses and church groups want them stopped.

    As for the police enforcing powers through the Civic Government Scotland Act pffft. I believe (nah I know) that labour were flirting with using the police to do their dirty work two years ago in Glasgow. These guys have used Catholic fear to garner votes in the past and still they couldn't manage to do the right thing. Also I have personally witnessed widespread disorder at orange marches ignored by the police and even people temporarily detained by police for wearing Irish or Celtic affiliated clothing.

    We do need to deal with this at source, not wasting money throwing money at organisations to educate all children when only a small number actually need it. legislate to cull and condition the bigots at play with all their finery and faux genuflection to God and crown.

  36. @Tony, if I've misunderstood any aspect of what you were trying to say (and I think I have) then I apologise. I get it now. Just to clarify, I am not suggesting we don't blame the ned. He is not blameless. He is by all accounts a twat. I just don't see that he has committed a crime here. I blame him for his horrible words. They tell me everything I wish to know about the man. I just don't think it was right to involve the law for two reasons:

    1. It's a dangerous precedent.
    2. It will not really help. It may in fact harm.

    After the parcel bombs and death threats against Lennon, we had condemnations from Alex Salmond, Michel Platini and Michael Kelly. A similar condemnation from then Rangers manager Walter Smith would certainly not have gone amiss. Bigotry is extremely unpleasant and with political power behind it it's intolerable. But bigotry cannot be illegal, and that includes expressions of bigotry and hatred where no one is harmed or made to feel threatened. I presume that Neil Lennon would not be found lurking on a Facebook page called "Neil Lennon should be banned", where lots of people are slagging him off. As I'm sure Catholic Celtic supporters know which meeting places to avoid, they will also know where not to go online. Sad, but true. So I can't get my head around this idea of breach of the peace. How do we "legislate to cull and condition the bigots at play" in an acceptable way such that the law is applied consistently? Maybe the answer is the legislation that is currently being considered. That would make the legal situation very clear. Breach of the Peace is just not the way to go.

  37. Thanks for the apology, appreciated.

    I am all for tolerating the intolerant, but only so far as it does not overwhelm other rights, which I am sad to say is the current state of affairs.

    The current proposed legislation actually goes down the line that you are arguing against, and I am not altogether supportive till I know more.

    Incredibly it seems that instead of enforcing current laws which the police have only started to do. The proposed new laws deliberately go out to 'even up' the score by making the non-sectarian songs and chants by celtic fans criminal. In effect singing songs supportive of the struggle for irish independence that includes the words IRA will land you in the gaol. I'm sure one of those songs includes the words 'being irish means we're guilty one and all'. Irony or reality?

    This makes a mockery of blurring the lines between offensive and criminal. Though perhaps we have stumbled on the nub of the matter, why do people find expressions of Irishness offensive? And crucially when the British army, police and legal militia groups commited as many (if not more) criminal acts, and abused their position of upholding the law. Why do we find that the IRA are evil when they were really only the occasional bad guys amongst many?

  38. The proposed legislation will not ban any specific songs. Nor will it ban any specific chants or any expressions or any other speech or music or expression of any kind - unless it is likely to cause trouble and that is a judgement for police officers to take at the time, as it is at present with breach of the peace.

    I wish people will address that point. Someone said to me today that the Birrell verdict was like people having a go at Ricky Gervais talking about mongs. It so isn't. As far as I am aware Ricky Gervais has never physically attacked a person with Downs Syndrome, nor does he associate with people who do so. He is a comedian who just likes to push things in a way that, in my opinion, is somewhat undignified for a guy hitting his fifties but that's besides the point. It is clearly not his intention to incite hatred against people with Downs Syndrome, however tasteless his remarks may be.

    Birrell on the other hand is, as we have established, a ned with a previous history of sectarianism and violence. Everyone commenting here may regard him as a vile person but you know what, among his own circle he is probably a bit of a star, a role model even for up and coming bams. And that will include the people reading and posting on that site. That's what makes it different from people making comments on twitter etc.

  39. This comment has been removed by the author.

  40. Indy

    I was shocked to hear from the lips of wee Eck on a tv programme just last week that songs with IRA were not acceptable and would be stopped.......or words to that affect. I was shocked because I am in contact with persons unnamed close to the process of all of this and not once was anything of this nature relayed to me. Also persons unnamed have also been in touch with me with the viewpoint since that this is an evening up process of sorts. Due to the fact that orange bigotry is finally, at last to be tackled.

    >>..unless it is likely to cause trouble and that is a judgement for police officers to take at the time..<<

    Well judging the reaction of hearts fans at Tyncastle the other week to a Republican song, those grounds are there to make such a judgement.

    You have been on the money all the way through this thread, I am glad that you have a real sense of peoples experiences rather than the abstract. And just to illustrate your point a tale that surprised even me. I run a boys fitba team who were in the process of an amalgamation with another year group. All going well it was decided to have a fundraising night. Unbeknown to me the night was to be in a loyalist pub - in an area that I did not know - bedecked in orange and British unionist flags. Once brought to my attention what the pub was I alerted my parents who responded with incredulity. I promised to ask the other team's people why they thought this was an appropriate place to have a childrens fundraising night.

    Despite attempting to deny it was a loyalist pub at first they could not understand why many of us would be uncomfortable in that environment, despite my calm explanations. I gave up there and insisted that any future nights would not be held in any environment where people could be uncomfortable. Their defence was that certain other celtic fans had attended previous nights, to which I mentioned that some have standards that cannot be attributed to others. It was left I am sure with aspersions cast in the direction of myself and the parents I was speaking for.

    Such is the mindset prevalent whereby people who object to bigots can be cast as bigots themselves. As a veteran of such misinterpretations, it was water off a duck's back to me but highlight perhaps why most catholics do not speak up and have previously just accepted the status quo. I should state that whilst just over half my kids support Celtic, nearly all are non-Catholics and we would have no issue if it was merely a Rangers aligned pub.

  41. This has been a very interesting thread and I've learned a lot over the course of commenting here. @Tony, I promise to read up on that new legislation more carefully and find out whether any of those worries are founded. @Indy, I agree with you that Birrell is the sort of guy who wants to stir up trouble generally. The question though is whether he committed an actual offence, specifically breach of the peace. I believe his lawyer when he says that Birrell had trouble appreciating the seriousness of what he had done. Taking that at face value, he may not have intended this particular action to cause trouble. Though the key here is that intention is not important to breach of the peace, which is all in the eye of the beholder and is normally an incident that speaks for itself. It's not like Birrell is constantly trying to stir up trouble as he goes about his daily business. He was caught doing something here that although not an innocent act, doesn't appear to me to be a crime. This is my chief problem and for that reason I see this as an over reach. If you're going to bang the guy up, you have to get him on a bona fide crime, not just some intuition of wrong doing. I'm okay with the prison sentence given he pleaded guilty. It's the charge itself that I don't agree with. I also get the feeling that he probably would have been found guilty anyway. I can imagine that with this precedent tucked away, the Facebook 2 (had they been in Glasgow) might well have been convicted of breach of the peace for their riot related Facebook events. That would actually appear on the surface to be more fitting than the charge in this case. But it would not take intent into account, and it's very important that this is expected to be proven. This is why I worry.

  42. What an absolutely glorious rant. I agree with every word!

  43. A wealth of comments that I am afraid I can only tardily respond to, focussing on those that put some specific thought (or allegation!) to me.


    Since Birrell pled guilty in the Sheriff Court, I dare say that the presiding judge didn't apply himself to those tests, and the issue was not raised. Who knows whether an appeal might be attempted (at least against sentence).

    Anonymous 18 October 2011 12:03

    What concerns me about your argument is its implication that if one has "experience or understanding" of the things you mention - and presumably you are asserting authority for yourself as an understander - then you couldn't possibly advance anything like the argument I've made. I don't accept that. Against me, it is a cheerful ad hominem, and fair enough. More generally, it is distinctly implausible. How happy would you be if I suggested that facts I apprehend - and you are benighted about - unerringly prove me right? I dare say you'd call me a cheeky rascal and damn my eyes...


    I have written before about the absence of sectarianism as a meaningful phenomenon in the course of my own life. However, I have considerable sympathy with those who argue that the equiparating tag of "sectarianism" mis-diagnoses what is essentially anti-Catholicism in Scotland. I would not accept, however, that liberty of expression is purely a philosophical matter. Suggesting I'm abstract ergo invalid is easy. My question would be the same as the one I asked anonymous. Isn't it rather concerning, to suggest that if one really understands the phenomenon of sectarianism, you have to support this conviction and prison sentence - and implicitly, if it makes you uncomfortable - you are an ignorant and abstract so and so whose views are invalid? As I say, it is easy to accuse me of that. Rather less so, I would have thought, of the various committed Catholics who have been in contact with me concerning this piece, agreeing substantially with the argument I outline. Finally, my reference to transphobia was not trying to draw a Catholic-Trans comparison, but rather to identify both as potentially at risk groups. Like you, I wish the data were better and it ought to be a priority to make it so.

    Anonymous 19 October 2011 10:28,

    What you outline is my understanding of the origins of "WATP" too.

  44. LPW

    >>-you are an ignorant and abstract so and so whose views are invalid?<<

    I'm not doing that at all to be fair, I do believe your views to be valid and on their own I largely agree with them. I am stating, pretty extensively I believe, that without context what you are saying is indeed philisophical. Much of what we comment on is in theory abstract to our normal experiences. That is not to say that what we or you in this instance are saying is incorrect, just that in the present prevailing circumstances - taking various factors into context- the theoretical validity is questionable on this occasion.

    Also with all due respect you did not address the context -as someone suggested- of laws pertaining to anti-semitic groups or glorifying Hitler or Nazism in various countries of mittel Europe. Or indeed my suggestion that instead of using Kantian, you use Niggers or yids as your examples. These are not simplistic comparisons, my intention is to hold a mirror upto where we are as a society, where all too sadly the abnormal is accepted as the norm.

    As for the various Catholics agreeing with you, I refer you to my previous post. ;¬)

  45. Tony,

    My apologies. My response was necessarily a bit compressed - and by responding to you directly, seemed particularly and exclusively to be addressing your argument, rather than distilling a scanty-short response from the stunning range of views which this particular piece has prompted. The arguments from stressing my identity (or at least their perceptions of it) strike me as generally rather interesting, hence my dwelling on it. Just as I get away with being critical about the SNP because I'm a nationalist (in the way I'm sure I wouldn't if I was a Labour blogger), I'd have been interested in seeing how reactions to this piece would have differed, if I've identified as a pious Catholic of primarily Irish ancestry.

    To address your point previously neglected, as you might expect, I don't support laws criminalising Holocaust denial, or the criminalisation of particular racialising vocabularies, despite absolutely denigrating them.

  46. LPW

    I am not a sook but I value, as do many your take on many things. I also value your ability to disagree with someone whilst taking on board any points of merit they make. There are gey few who are able to do that. On this occassion we will have to differ.

    My own experiences on your site actually back up your present position on these matters. This site is one of the very few places that I have not been censored or even banned from merely from airing my views. One Celtic aligned site even banned me for not allowing them to get away with the nonsense that the 'auld IRA' were somehow a different beast from the Provos amongst other things. Thereby allowing them to play amatuer revisionist. Thus they thought it expedient to shut me up, and god forbid I criticise the pro-British help our heroes jingoism installed by the labourite hegenomy at paradise.

    So thanks for putting up wi me ;¬)

  47. The thing I was worried about has happened. BOTP used for riot-related Facebook activity which was reportedly intended as a joke:


    Breach of the peace does not require intent, so "I meant it as a joke" (Hollie Bentley's defence against s44 Serious Crime Act in England) is no defence here. This is not good.