Leading Article: Time to harass the hooligans

Click to follow
If you are not interested in football you may find the following sentence hard to believe. In the past few years British soccer has become almost thug-free. Peace reigns on streets and at grounds where fighting was once a Saturday afternoon ritual. The combined onslaughts of the Taylor report, the Hillsborough tragedy, clever policing and commercial interests have transformed the nature of soccer fans. Look at the crowd into which Eric Cantona hurled himself two weeks ago. There were old and young, men and women, home and away supporters all sitting together. Ten years ago that would have been unimaginable.

So what did happen on Wednesday? And what should we do about it? A very small bunch of men - possibly as few as 50, most of them known to the police - took advantage of the relative innocence of the Irish authorities. They travelled to Dublin, bound together by an ideology that vindicates their boneheaded aggressiveness, and reckoned they could get away with mayhem. "We are a warrior nation, and that is what we do - fight," said one of the England fans responsible for the Dublin riot. "The cops just weren't prepared for it - it was great."

To some of our countrymen violence is not repulsive. On the contrary, it is a drug; exhilarating and addictive. To be proficient in it is a true mark of worth. These people hurt others because they enjoy it. Italian and Dutch soccer thugs also like a "rumble". So too do German immigrant bashers - though football matches are poor places to find the requisite Turks or Croatians to beat up. Violent or stupid young men with numb social consciences will usually find some outlet for their feelings.

With its tribal loyalties and substantial young male following, soccer will always be a tempting pool for fascist fish to swim in. It is also possible, as Bryan Robson said yesterday, that vigilance has been relaxed a mite too early. There have in recent weeks been a few omens of a return to some football grounds of the former blight. In which case we need to resume the careful watch kept on those who make trouble.

But this is really not a problem caused by football, which is why it would be wrong to stop England hosting the 1996 European championships. It would be counter-productive and masochistic to allow the behaviour of a few dozen sociopaths to wreck the enjoyment of the thousands of ordinary British people who are looking forward to the tournament. In fact Britain, precisely because of its success in controlling hooliganism at home, is particularly well-equipped to police the event.

Tougher measures will, however, be needed. Identity cards for football fans alone are not the answer. Such cards would deter genuine fans but fail to prevent thugs going abroad to riot.

Even better police intelligence and even closer international co-operation will both improve matters; Wednesday's failure by the Gardai to act on information provided by the British police was inexcusable. But it may be time to consider some more radical and illiberal measures. Would it be such an affront to civil liberties if we were to curtail the rights of certain known individuals to travel to particular foreign destinations where matches are due to be played? If further riots can be prevented then there is nothing wrong with harassment, so long as the right people are harassed.