Police warn of rise in 'sectarianism & consistently thuggish behaviour' at football

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Object thrown at Hearts' Zlamal from Celtic end

A senior police officer who spent almost 30 years in Northern Ireland is shocked at the "almost visceral" level of sectarianism in Scottish football.

Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr, who joined Police Scotland six months ago said they are concerned about how "normal" sectarianism and "consistently thuggish behaviour" has become.

It comes as it emerged police are investigating reports of sectarian singing at Tynecastle - as well as coin throwing from Celtic fans - during a Scottish Premiership game on Wednesday.

Footage showed an object almost hitting Hearts goalkeeper Zdenek Zlamal during the game, which finished 2-1 to the league leaders.

Police have not confirmed in what area of the ground the singing was reported, but they have urged anyone with information to contact them.

Earlier this month, Kilmarnock striker Kris Boyd criticised Celtic fans after being hit by a coin and subjected to sectarian abuse while warming up as substitute during the sides' meeting at Rugby Park.

The problem, previously termed "Scotland's shame", returned to the headlines recently after Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke highlighted the abuse he received from Rangers fans.

The club's chairman Dave King later apologised to Clarke and said everyone at Rangers "abhors the sectarian element that continues to be so prevalent in Scottish football."

'This is not normal. It is a sport'

The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act proved unpopular among fans
The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act proved unpopular among fans

Kerr made his comments at a Scottish Police Authority board meeting in Greenock after being asked by David Crichton, chairman of NHS Health Scotland, if there was evidence of an increase in sectarian abuse and offensive behaviour at football grounds.

He referenced recent incidents such as a flare being thrown at a police horse, officers being pulled from horses and others being spat at and attacked.

Kerr added: "What I've been surprised at over the last six months has been two things. One has been that level of sectarianism - and I say that having policed in Northern Ireland for nearly 30 years.

"And I've been surprised that the consistently thuggish behaviour of a very small number of fans is considered normal. This is not normal. It is a sport.

"On both fronts there is a responsibility and a need for everybody, including the police service, to challenge ourselves about how much that's considered normal and what we can actually do to address it."

When asked about data on these incidents, Kerr said it was "hard to quantify" and that his comments are based on the anecdotal evidence of officers policing the matches.

He added that Police Scotland would "certainly not be going to arrest our way out of this".

An independent review of policing at football matches in Scotland is due to be launched next week.

'Clear, emphatic, decisive leadership needed'

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Clubs must show sectarianism leadership - Swinney

Speaking on BBC Scotland's Debate Night on Wednesday, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said football clubs had to "show much more leadership to their fan base" on sectarianism.

The cabinet secretary for education and skills acknowledged that the behaviour was not limited to "just two clubs".

"It has no part in 21st century Scotland," Swinney said. "I'm not even sure it had a part in any part of Scottish society at any stage of our history. But in the 21st century let's get beyond it."

When asked how long the government gives the clubs and authorities to address the issue, SNP MSP Swinney referenced the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which was repealed last March.

"I know that act was unpopular in certain quarters, but in other quarters people thought 'Thank goodness the government has stuck its neck out'," he said.

"We had that legislation overturned by every other party in parliament - against the wishes of the SNP - because we felt clear, emphatic, decisive leadership was required on this question.

"We'll continue to do that, but fundamentally we expect the football clubs to demonstrate more leadership than they're currently demonstrating on this subject."

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