Presiding Officer, I welcome you to your post, which I did not get to do when answering a previous urgent question.
In response to James Dornan’s question, I say that I was in regular contact with Police Scotland over the weekend as the appalling events unfolded in Glasgow. First and foremost, I record my thanks to the officers on the ground, some of whom suffered injuries as they went about their job. Such assaults on our officers are simply unacceptable. On many levels, I am disappointed about the selfishness of the Covid breaches, but I am perhaps more disappointed about the violence and vandalism that we saw in George Square and with the anti-Catholic bigotry that was on display.
Since the weekend, my officials and I have continued to liaise with Police Scotland and to engage directly with Rangers Football Club to discuss the fallout and consider next steps. Police Scotland has set up a dedicated team and an online portal in order to investigate the George Square incidents. I envisage that arrests will follow in the days and weeks ahead. Rangers FC is working closely with Police Scotland to identify supporters who were involved in criminal activity, and I urge Rangers to take strong action against any fan who is found to have broken the law.
Saturday’s scenes were an utter disgrace. Like many people, I am sick and tired of Rangers fans thinking that they are above the law. Vandalism, violence among themselves and towards the police, anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish racism show us that we have a major problem in Scotland, which we must tackle.
The blame for the abhorrent scenes lies squarely with the Rangers fans who were in attendance, but the club itself has a major role to play in respect of the messages that it sends and the behaviour of club members.
How could Saturday’s chaos affect Glasgow’s Covid rate, which is already concerning, and what action is the Government taking—and does it intend to take—to eradicate anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish racism in Scotland?
James Dornan probably expresses the anger that many citizens of Glasgow and people across the country feel. In fairness to Rangers Football Club, it has engaged for a number of weeks with Police Scotland, the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council, and it has released a statement asking its fans and pleading with them to respect the Covid guidelines. I would have liked that messaging to have been stronger and more explicit, but such messaging did come forth.
James Dornan has hit on an important point. As much as people may ask—legitimately, of course—whether Government, the police and the club could have done more, let us not forget that responsibility for the dreadful scenes that we saw lies on the shoulders of the individuals who took part in the disorder. There must be personal responsibility, because those people do not need the Government, the police or a football club to tell them that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Personal responsibility must be taken. As I said, Police Scotland will follow that up.
On the health impact, I heard Professor Jason Leitch this morning on “Good Morning Scotland” say that, from a clinical perspective, we might, while expressing disappointment about them, never know whether mass gatherings by Rangers fans in Glasgow were superspreader events. We will need to see how the data looks in the coming weeks.
On James Dornan’s points about anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bigotry, I say that it is disgusting and disgraceful and I have zero tolerance for it. I do not for a second doubt that the matter will be part of the investigations that Police Scotland has committed to in following it up. Every one of us has a responsibility to call it out and to call it what it is.
I welcome Police Scotland’s having established a dedicated inquiry team to investigate the carnage at George Square, but we also need to take steps to prevent such abhorrent scenes from happening in the first place. As the cabinet secretary is well aware, I have for years been pushing for strict liability, whereby clubs would be held responsible for the actions of their fans. Although I accept that personal responsibility is at the core of the issue, over the years I have been met with denial from football authorities and clubs and have had death threats from Rangers fans.
Will the cabinet secretary ask Rangers Football Club to reflect on what more it could have done, and what it can do in the future, to dampen the climate of hate and intimidation? Will he consider legislating to introduce strict liability or—which would be even better—will he work with the Scottish Football Association and Scottish Professional Football League with a view to implementing strict liability to ensure that scenes such as those on Saturday are never again seen from so-called football fans on the streets of Glasgow?
I am happy to take that conversation forward. Indeed, after tomorrow, whoever is in post as Cabinet Secretary for Justice, working alongside the minister who will have responsibility for sport, will be happy to do so. It is important that we engage with clubs and bring them with us on the journey, rather than try to impose measures on them. However, ultimately that is what we might have to do. If the clubs are unwilling to acknowledge, accept or confront the fact that there is a problem among some fans, we might have to work together as a Parliament to find an appropriate solution.
We have just heard some excellent speeches, and I urge parliamentarians to work collaboratively. Many members across the chamber are fans of various football clubs and we have a responsibility to work together to try to find a lasting solution to the issue. I am happy in my current role—I am sure that whoever is the next Cabinet Secretary for Justice will be happy, too—to work with James Dornan, because he has championed the issue. Strict liability is one of the options that should remain firmly on the table.
Glasgow witnessed disorder and violence by some Rangers supporters in George Square only a few months previously, so why did we not learn from that? On the obscene anti-Catholic bigotry and anti-Irish racism—I am pleased that the First Minister and the justice secretary have rightly called those out—does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that the Catholic community is sick and tired of it and that we need everyone to work together, including the football organisations, which need to take a much tougher stance than they have done, with zero tolerance of bigotry wherever it is found in football and beyond?
I absolutely agree with how Pauline McNeill has articulated the problem. On her first question about what we have learned from the disorder in March, I say to her—this extends to all members—that I know from having spoken to Police Scotland that it is willing to speak to any member of the Scottish Parliament to explain the operational decisions that were taken.
There is no easy answer. If people think that we can just throw 10,000 people in the back of police vans or custody suites overnight—I am not saying that Pauline McNeill is suggesting that—they should know that it cannot be done. How to ensure that such disorder did not take place in the very heart of our communities was one of the very difficult decisions that Police Scotland had to try to take. It is legitimate for Pauline McNeill and other members to ask those operational questions. I have spoken to Police Scotland, and it has said to me that it is absolutely willing to answer them.
On the substance of Pauline McNeill’s question about anti-Catholic and anti-Irish hatred, I am disgusted by that hatred. She is absolutely correct to say that the Irish community and members of the Catholic community have faced that hatred for far too long. Perhaps we, collectively as a Parliament, have not done enough to call it out. I accept that from the Government’s perspective, too.
I woke up this morning to two rabid anti-Catholic messages, which I have already reported to the police. I am neither Catholic nor Irish, but the hatred was directed towards me, so I intend to call it out.
I suspect that we will have support and collaboration on the issue. I am happy to work with any members on calling out hatred and bigotry of any kind.
To reinforce James Dornan’s point, I say that many thousands of fans are clearly unwilling to listen, or are incapable of listening, to encouragement and appeals for civilised behaviour. Is it not abundantly clear that we will see significant change only when every fan of every club knows that any hint of vandalism, violence, antisocial behaviour or bigotry will bring not only criminal sanctions for them as individuals but immediate and severe sanctions for the club that they follow, whether through the law or through the football authorities?
Patrick Harvie makes a strong point, as James Dornan did. Strict liability should be on the table. Other suggestions that I have heard that should be on the table include an independent regulator, such as has been discussed for the English game. If football is unable to regulate itself, perhaps somebody who is independent should be considered.
The clubs could also take stronger action. In my opening answer, I said that Rangers Football Club has committed to working with Police Scotland. I hope that any supporter or fan, or anybody who is involved with Rangers Football Club who has been found guilty of being involved in anti-Catholic bigotry, vandalism or disorder will get a lifetime ban from the club. That is probably the punishment that fans would fear the most.
Patrick Harvie’s points are well made. As I have said, the Government will work on a cross-party basis, I hope, to come to a solution. I hope that we can bring the clubs with us on that journey.
The scenes that we saw at the weekend were disgraceful, and the attacks on our excellent police officers were particularly reprehensible. However, crucially, the coronavirus and public health advice do not distinguish between reasons for gatherings; in the advice it is noted only that the risk of transmission is increased where they occur. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in order to avoid public confusion, it is important to ensure consistency in public health messaging by advising against all gatherings?
Although that is important—I get the point that Liam Kerr is trying to make—when I stood here on Friday to take an urgent question, Alex Cole-Hamilton asked me a supplementary question in response to which I made it abundantly clear that gatherings of any kind should not happen. The Government has said it from the daily briefings podium, and we say it in the chamber. The First Minister and I have said that, if it were not for the Covid regulations, we would have been at the Kenmure Street gathering, for example. However, we did not go, because we would not encourage gatherings of any sort because of the public health emergency.
I say genuinely that we did not see thuggish and loutish behaviour in
Kenmure Street. We did not see disorder, protesters punching police officers or protesters urinating in public, and we did not hear anti-Catholic bigotry—nor, indeed, did we hear it at other gatherings.
When it comes to the public health emergency, Liam Kerr is absolutely right that the advice does not distinguish between gatherings. However, let us not think that there is absolute equivalence between the scenes of disorder that we saw at the weekend and what we saw in Pollokshields and some other gatherings over the weekend.
I will continue to do what is important and necessary in the public health interest, and I hope that we can get the support of other parties in that endeavour.
As the MSP whose constituency covers George Square, I have been contacted by numerous city centre residents who, like me, are appalled and disgusted by the behaviour of what was, to be frank, a mob in the guise of football fans. Does the minister agree that my constituents should not have to listen to such bigotry and racism or to witness such disgusting violence and vandalism in their streets? What steps is he taking to prevent a repeat of those shameful events?
I welcome Kaukab Stewart to the chamber. I am delighted that she has been elected. I do not know whether this is her first question; I suspect that it might be. It is no surprise to me that she has hit the ground running and is asking questions on behalf of constituents in the first weeks of parliamentary business.
I will ensure that Police Scotland speaks to and debriefs Kaukab Stewart as the constituency MSP—I know that she has made that request. I support the actions that Police Scotland took over the weekend, but it is important that members can ask Police Scotland questions about operational matters on behalf of their constituents.
We will do our best to stop similar gatherings and disorder from taking place. Police Scotland will always do that in the best interests of public order and safety.
I go back to the point that I made to James Dornan at the beginning of this exchange: people must accept personal responsibility. No one needs the Government, the police or football clubs to tell them that assaulting police officers is wrong, that running amok, creating disorder and vandalising our city centres are wrong, that urinating in public is wrong, or that engaging in anti-Catholic bigotry is wrong. People should know that, yet grown men and women took part in the scenes that we saw over the weekend.
Kaukab Stewart has my absolute commitment that we will work closely with any stakeholder, club, city council and the police to ensure that we can prevent similar scenes. However, we must also be absolutely emphatic in saying that people hold personal responsibility for their actions. That is why Police Scotland will follow up the matter in the coming weeks.