Celtic supporters who wore IRA shirts to match win appeal against breach of the peace conviction

Sheriff Appeal Court
Sheriff Appeal Court

Three men who were convicted of committing a breach of the peace after attending a Celtic FC game wearing T-shirts with IRA imagery have had their convictions quashed by the Sheriff Appeal Court (Criminal Division).

Daniel Ward, Martin Macaulay and Ryan Walker argued that the sheriff had erred in repelling submissions made on their behalf based on the contention that the Crown had failed to corroborate that the T-shirts depicted imagery of a proscribed terrorist organisation.

The conjoined appeals were heard by Sheriff Principal Derek MurraySheriff Principal Craig Turnbull, and Appeal Sheriff Nigel Ross.

Black-clad figure 

The appellants all attended a match between Celtic and Linfield FC, a Belfast-based team, at Celtic Park Stadium on 19 July 2017. The Crown led evidence given by three police officers, two from Police Scotland and one from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who each described the three men as wearing identical white T-shirts printed with the image showing the head of a black-clad figure.

One Scottish officer, Constable Stirling, described the image as depicting a paramilitary figure wearing a black beret and sunglasses with a camouflage scarf covering the mouth. The other, Constable Taylor, echoed this description but also mentioned the tri-colour flag of the Republic of Ireland being in the background of the image.

The Irish officer, Constable Nixon, said that the black beret was of the same style and colour as those worn by members of the IRA, and that the image was clearly meant to depict an IRA soldier. He also said he had regularly seen people dressed like that in the streets of Northern Ireland, at parades, and at the funerals of IRA members.

Each of the appellants argued that it was necessary for the Crown to adduce evidence that the T-shirts contravened the law in the manner libelled in the charge, namely that they displayed an image of a figure “related to and in support of” a proscribed terrorist organisation.

In response, the Crown submitted that the fact that the T-shirt bore an IRA related image was part of the narrative only, and that it was the breach of the peace that required to be corroborated.

Crown selected wording

The opinion of the court was delivered by Sheriff Principal Turnbull. Considering the evidence given by the police witnesses, he said: “Only the evidence of Constable Nixon was capable of establishing that the T-shirts displayed an image of a figure related to and in support of the IRA. The evidence of Constables Stirling and Taylor did not. Taken at its highest, the evidence was capable only of establishing that the T-shirts worn by the appellants each displayed an image of a paramilitary figure.”

On the details of the charge, he said: “Proof of the charge turns upon what the image depicts. The Crown selected the wording of the charge, and accordingly required to prove that the image was of a figure related to and in support of a proscribed terrorist organisation, namely, the IRA.”

He continued: “The only evidence supporting the connection with the IRA was given by Constable Nixon.  The Crown did not lead evidence to corroborate that point. The nature and specification of the proscribed organisation is an integral part of the charge of breach of the peace, as the Crown chose to libel it. In the absence of proof of that element, there is no other conduct libelled sufficient to support a conviction for breach of the peace.”

For these reasons, the appeals were allowed, and the convictions quashed.

Deliberately provocative gesture

The Sheriff Appeal Court also considered it appropriate to express a view on whether the charge would have amounted to a breach of the peace if all the necessary elements, i.e. corroborated proof that the T-shirt depicted an IRA member, had been present.

Considering the details of the breach alleged, Sheriff Principal Turnbull said: “The wearing of a T-shirt (or top) which inter alia refers to a proscribed organisation can amount to a breach of the peace - see Maguire v Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow (2013). The wearing of a T-shirt which depicts an image in support of such an organisation is no different.”

Turning to the context of the case, he noted: “The context in this appeal was described in evidence by each of the three police officers: a football match between Celtic, a team based in Glasgow who are perceived to have a predominantly Catholic support, and Linfield, a team based in Belfast who are perceived to have a predominantly Protestant support. The match was the second of a two legged fixture.”

He continued: “The first match, which had taken place in Belfast a short time earlier, had involved what was described as significant crowd trouble between the respective groups of supporters both inside and outside the stadium. The potential for further serious disturbance to the community was evident.”

Based on these circumstances, he concluded: “It is difficult but to conclude that the wearing such T-shirts amounted to a deliberately provocative gesture directed towards the Linfield support. The wearing of such T-shirts in near proximity to the opposing supporters within or around a football stadium is conduct which, if proved, would in our view present as genuinely alarming and disturbing, in context, to any reasonable person.”

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2021

Other judgments by Sheriff Principal Craig Turnbull