Sport and Politics in Northern Ireland
There has been much said about the need to remove politics from sport since the Flag/human rights protest an Crusaders football club on saturday the 16th February 1013. Let us examine the extent of the problem. I have decided to begin with the Northern Ireland national team. When the Sports Minister for Northern Ireland attends international matches they delay entry into the stand until after the National Anthem has been played, this in its self is a political gesture. The Northern Ireland supporters have made amazing progress removing sectarian chanting at games. If you are lucky enough to get a ticket and attend a game you will find the soccer anthem is now “the way to Amarillo”. The Northern Ireland supporters are also widely regarded as the best behaved supporters in Europe (the wider world has not been exposed to them lately !) and yet they are vilified in there own country and branded sectarian. These two contrasting views can not both be correct, the only independent evidence is the total lack of sanctions by governing bodies and the fact that the rest of Europe do not have a agenda. Add to this the currant trend of Catholic/nationalist players opting to play for the Republic of Ireland because that reflects there political viewpoint and you begin to understand the the extent to which sport here has been politicized. I present facts, use your own brain to research, evidence will lead you to the truth. Remember to effect change we must begin with the head of the organasion.
Let us look at Rugby. A sport that would have us believe they do not “see” the border. Before ever International home game they play the National Anthem of the Republic of Ireland. We were told this was because the matches were played in the Republic and when a match was played in Northern Ireland they would play the Anthem of Northern Ireland. However when it became clear that Ravenhill would reach a standard acceptable for Representative teams to play there Irish Rugby came up with a new Anthem, Irelands Call. This is played before “away” matches. Interestingly when a Ireland A team played at Raivenhill in Northern Ireland they played Irelands Call, thus designating it a “away” match. That would seam to indicate the border is recognized by Irish Rugby.
Let us look at the GAA. This sporting organization has at its core a mandate to preserve the Irish National Identity. The sporting body for a very long time bared membership on the grounds of religion, it also put a block on membership by members of the security forces both serving and retired. I may be wrong but to the best of my knowledge this id the only sporting governing body excluding South Africa during partisan to bar inclusion on grounds of religion or occupation. When it became necessary to play rugby on GAA facilities there was what can only be described as robust debate as to wether or not a “non Irish” sport should be allowed. Even when this had been settled its membership was horrified at the prospect of foreign National Anthems being played on its grounds, despite the facts that (a) This is a well recognized curtsey everywhere in the sporting world and (b) it was not there members being subjected to this affront. I will say that the GAA has taken steps to become more sporting. It did remove the bans on people joining the organization and has accepted a team from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, however since the attempted murder of Peader Heffron (captan of the PSNI team) it is difficult to say the moves have been universally accepted.
The Irish league has faced manny challenges. Much has been done in recent years. At grass roots level there is wide spread cross community developments. Glentorn traditionally fielded a team comprising of both Protestant and Catholic players. If you visit the Oval you will see a banner that has been there manny years stating “supper Glens play football, not religion”. It is a long time since Linfield fielded a “Protestant Eleven” I am unsure of the make up of the Crusaders team traditionally and will not comment on that, i do know Cliftonville have had a mixed team and although I am unsure if this we always the case i believe it is a fair guess that both these teams have been mixed for a very long time, anyone with clear knowledge is welcome to provide facts on this point. That deals with the teams, what of the supporters. Anyone that has taken a close look at political demonstrations across Europe will notice that Football supporters have formed the front line in disturbances. Look at Turkey with Fenerbahce and Galatasaray providing foot solders. This is replicated in Italy and Spain with “Ultras” using there skills in organization and violence to become the spearhead. Look at the use of Partizan Partizan and Red Star Belgrade supporters. Even the liberal Dutch have a Political edge with Ajax being known as “the Jew boys” and Feyenoord being the working mans team. It is a testament to the efforts that have been made in the Irish League that this has not been replicated in the currant Flags Protests. This is not to say there is not still work to do. It is a feature of football supporters to automatically use anything they believe will upset the opponents on any given day. Note both Linfield and Glentorn claiming the other lot live in a slum, note extra red white and blue when Linfield play Cliftonville, note the Cliftonville supporters ruining the minutes silence for Remembrance Sunday. The inclusion of a act of remembrance into football has caused problems on the mainland also. James McClean a Republic of Ireland International born in Northern Ireland was the only player in the premier league to refuse to wear a Poppy on his shirt. He went farther by having a tri color embroidered into his boots for that match. This is a person making a considerable amount of money playing football in England. It is noteworthy that league in extremely multi national. The only person that could not follow the adage “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” was a Nationalist from Northern Ireland. Celtic took steps to distance themselves from a campaign called “no poppies on our hoops” The club themselves stated it was a vociferous Irish Contingent behind the movement. Removing politics from sport is possible, but it needs to be led by the people that put it there in the first place.
Finally the problems on Saturday were as much to do with the location of the stadium as anything else. The only way to insure this does not happen again is to create a new stadium for every team. This stadium would need to be placed in a wasteland devoid of political identity to insure all supporters can com and go without causing offense to the local population. However this in its self is impossible due to cost. The other problem is finding a site. You will notice that when considering a new National Stadium Sinn Fein are insisting the site includes a monument to the Hunger Strikers. No, not strikers that scored sporting goals for the country, political figures. So please, start taking politics totally out of sport.