THE top-level summit chaired by First Minister Alex Salmond following the Old Firm ‘shame game’ on March 2 led to an array of proposals being hastily drawn up to tackle the blight of sectarianism in the west of Scotland.
From a personal point of view, I applaud the initiative shown by chief constable Stephen House of Strathclyde Police in calling for the meeting. Even though many were sceptical of Salmond’s motivation for getting involved – being seen to get tough on sectarianism will do his party no harm in the run up to May’s Scottish elections – it was right that the issue was once again debated at the highest level. You only need to look at the rising arrest count and incidence of domestic abuse on match days to know the fixture is exerting a heavy toll on society. Among the many proposals which emerged from the summit was a police idea to restrict pub opening times near stadiums on match days. But it doesn’t seem to be the most practical, or fair, course of action.
The Glasgow licensing board itself has said this would be hard to achieve on the basis of current licensing legislation. The 2005 Act does allow for closure orders where public safety could be compromised by the ‘likelihood of disorder on, or in the vicinity of premises’. But, as it was explained to SLTN last week, it would be down to the police to demonstrate that there is a ‘causal link’ between the operation of the premises and the outbreak of trouble, which is likely to be extremely onerous.
One way to get round that would be to impose a city-wide ban on alcohol sales before and after games, or in designated areas. But this would again seem to be fraught with complications.
Would it be fair to impose such restrictions on businesses which derive no trade from people heading to and from the match?
Where would the lines for such ‘alcohol exclusion zones’ near the stadiums be drawn?
Would it not just lead to thirsty fans gathering in pubs just outside the boundaries?
And what about the pubs which happen to be based within those zones yet do not attract a football crowd?
Why should they be denied valuable trading rights?
There’s also the question of whether police will seek to restrict pub opening hours and not supermarket trading times. If that were the case, there would be nothing to stop people buying cheap supermarket carry-outs and finding quiet spots to consume them before heading to the game. As I said at the top of this piece, I think Scotland must seize the initiative in the battle against sectarianism. In light of the above uncertainties, however, the best course of action may not lie in match day trading restrictions, but in moving the games from Sundays to midweek, perhaps even to a Monday night. This has long been advocated by the SLTA and seems to have the tacit support of the police, whose figures suggest the Old Firm crime count is higher when the games take place at the weekend than if they clash midweek. The logic is pretty simple.
Fans, assuming the bulk of them have jobs, would have less time to drink before the game, and less time after. Cue less alcohol misuse and less arrests, given that alcohol is the mitigating factor in so many crimes committed in Scotland. In the current circumstances, with matches kicking off at lunchtime on Sundays, people have all day to drink once the final whistle sounds, which is proving to be a recipe for disaster. A Monday night kick-off would also bring trading benefits, chiefly because it would attract business on a traditionally quiet night.
Broadcaster BSkyB, which holds the TV rights to the Old Firm games, has been silent on the matter so far. No doubt the Sunday lunchtime kick-off is ideal for its schedules, as it can follow up the Celtic and Rangers games with action from the English Premiership later in the afternoon.
With Scottish football so dependent on Sky for much-needed revenue, the football authorities are likely to be heavily influenced by the broadcaster’s demands on these matters.
But the needs of society should always outweigh those of commerce. For everyone’s sake, the trade, police, the health service and families, a midweek kick-off must at least be given serious consideration.