By James Dornan MSP

REPEALING legislation against hate crime, sectarianism and online abuse is a strange priority for any political party – not least a party of the left.

But Labour MSP James Kelly’s attempt to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act is exactly that.

Jeanette Findlay of the Fans Against Criminalisation group last week used a column in this paper to outline the position of campaigners against the Act.

It is, of course, the right of those in support of repeal to make their case – but it’s also vital that any debate starts from a position of clarity and accuracy.

First, Findlay claimed that a Holyrood consultation showed 71 per cent support for repeal. In fact, opinion polls consistently show that the public – including football fans – overwhelmingly support the Act. Parliamentary consultations are not designed to measure public support but to hear a range of arguments on either side of an issue.

And Findlay’s claim that a bad-tempered game between Celtic and Rangers was the justification given for the Act is similarly only one part of the picture.

It’s true that a Glasgow Derby in 2011 cast a light on the ugly side of Scottish football – but a confrontation between managers was only part of a game that was marred by sectarian chanting, dozens of arrests and a number of players sent off.

That game was far from an isolated incident.

In the same year, parcel bombs were sent to the Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two high-profile supporters of the club, lawyer Paul McBride QC and Labour MSP Trish Godman.

In a separate incident bullets were sent to Lennon and the players Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn – all three Northern Irish Catholics.

This shameful harassment campaign was driven by an ugly sectarian belief system that seeks to divide by background, by football team, by religion, by politics, by culture.

Most football fans are disgusted by that sectarianism. They know that sporting rivalry over 90 minutes should be left at that.

But anybody who thinks that sectarianism in Scottish football is not a serious problem is kidding themselves.

The hatred that, at its worst, can spill over to violence or harassment campaigns is nursed by toxic, sectarian chanting on the terraces and anonymous, abusive accounts online.

There’s a legitimate debate to be had over how you tackle that ingrained hatred – and no-one would claim that you can simply legislate it away.

Cultural change isn’t easy. It takes time and it takes effort. But, when people step over the line, the law has to be there as an option.

Labour’s plan, supported by the other opposition parties, is simply to scrap the Offensive Behaviour Act with no replacement. That is a fundamentally irresponsible approach that would tie the hands of the police and prosecutors, leaving them without the specific powers that they have told us they need.

It would also leave a serious gap in the law – particularly in relation to threatening online communications – which would leave Scotland out of line with the rest of the UK.

Scottish football has changed dramatically in my lifetime.

Hometown heroes have been replaced by expensive foreign stars, the old terraces replaced by all-seater stadiums, and a game for working men has become a family day out.

The grim, mass hooliganism that followed clubs in the 1980s has largely disappeared and routine racism is no longer viewed as acceptable, with clubs proud to flaunt their anti-racist credentials.

But there is a small minority that continues to cause problems.

One important aspect of the Offensive Behaviour Act is that although it was partially a response to problems around sectarianism, it also covers other forms of hate crime – such as racism and homophobia.

Sadly, there are still incidents where black players are racially abused, and social media means that footballers are not shielded from the views of fans after the final whistle.

And the fear of abuse must contribute to the fact that openly gay players remain absent from professional football even as LGBT figures break barriers across public life.

That’s why gay rights campaigners have backed the Act, with both the Equality Network and Stonewall Scotland expressing concerns about the message repealing the Act would send about what behaviour is acceptable.

Tackling hatred is an enormous task without easy answers. The Offensive Behaviour Act is one tool, and an important one, but all laws have their limitations – and we should always be willing to consider how we improve them.

That’s why the Scottish Government has commissioned an independent review into hate crime, which will consider – among other areas – whether existing legislation can be simplified, rationalised and harmonised in any way, such as through the introduction of a single consolidated hate crime act.

I am also bringing forward a Member’s Bill to introduce a system of "strict liability", which would hold clubs responsible for the behaviour of their fans and encourage a culture of self-policing.

If opposition parties are determined to oppose the Offensive Behaviour Act, they need to bring forward their own proposals – simply scrapping existing laws would be reckless and irresponsible. This is a serious issue – and it deserves more than slogans.

James Dornan is SNP MSP for Glasgow Cathcart