Kicking politics to touch with a home-ground advantage

Wed, Feb 16, 2011, 00:00

A different kind of drama will play out in Stormont this week, when the IFA helps bring a play about challenging prejudice through football into the Senate Chamber

IT’S A creative journey which began in Paradise, made its way to Windsor Park football ground and is about to enter the halls of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, home to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Tomorrow, its magnificent Senate Chamber will be the venue for Lish and Gerry at The Shrine, a new double-hander, which will be the centrepiece of a one-off event.

In 2004, Belfast’s Lyric Theatre commissioned sports journalist Padraig Coyle and actors Conor Grimes and Alan McKee, to write Paradise, a play about Belfast Celtic Football Club. It charted the meteoric rise and sensational fall of one of the greatest teams this island has ever produced. When it withdrew from the Irish League, following a sectarian attack at the end of its match against Linfield on St Stephen’s day 1948, its devoted followers were left bereft.

The beating heart of the play is the club’s legendary manager Elisha Scott, played with ferocious passion by Lalor Roddy. He and Coyle had talked frequently and at length about how they might resurrect Scott’s story. Then interest emerged from an unlikely quarter – the Irish Football Association – whose EU-funded Football For All programme is designed to address issues of sectarianism and racism.

Michael Boyd is the IFA’s community relations officer and the driving force behind Football For All. In that role, he had become interested in developing drama as a means of unlocking memories and dealing with the past. He bumped into Coyle at a cross-community football function and a conversation transpired.

“Call it serendipity, whatever,” he recalls. “Padraig was looking to write something new about Lish Scott and I was organising a workshop in April for an invited audience at Windsor Park, with Belfast Celtic as its theme. It was the perfect fit. Everyone there was galvanised by Lalor Roddy’s performance and important issues and concerns were raised in the after-show discussion.

“In the safe context of the drama, people felt free to air their views about things which had caused suspicion and division between the two clubs all those years ago.”

Buoyed up by the success of the occasion, Boyd and the IFA were keen to up the ante. In October, they gathered an audience of around 150 public figures, community workers, representatives of the football fraternity and the media in the viewing lounge at Windsor Park . This time around Scott was not alone on stage, but was joined by another iconic figure from the time.

“The piece tells the story of two men, who challenged prejudice through football,” explains Coyle. “Scott was a Protestant from the loyalist Donegall Road area, who grew up not far from Windsor Park. He was goalkeeper at Liverpool for 22 years and played over 500 games for them. Then he came home to become player/manager of Belfast Celtic and took them to unprecedented success.

“His friend Gerry Morgan, who is played by Vincent Higgins, was a Catholic from Carrick Hill in the centre of the city. Unlike the rest of his family, he was a Blue man through and through. He played for Linfield and was trainer to the club and the Northern Ireland team until 1959, the year in which both he and Lish died.”

Director Jackie Doyle has added her production expertise to the mix and a number of well-known Northern actors have voiced a soundscape containing heated parliamentary debates from 1949 about violence in football and security issues.

“Performing the play in venues like Windsor Park and Stormont, both historically contested spaces here in the North, gives every word you utter a heightened resonance,” reflects Higgins. “Theatre can trespass where historians cannot. We can say things nobody else would dare.” The path to Stormont was paved by the SDLP’s Conall McDevitt, MLA for South Belfast, with backing from Danny Kennedy MLA, Ulster Unionist Minister for Employment and Learning, and Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle.

McDevitt and fellow party member councillor Niall Kelly had attended the Windsor Park event in October. Although the venue is only a few hundred yards from their constituency office, it was the first time either of them had set foot there.

“I went to Windsor Park that night with some sense of personal and political trepidation,” says McDevitt. “It’s a place that still holds bad memories for many people. But I’ve been impressed by the huge efforts made by people in positions of leadership in the Irish FA in tackling issues of sectarianism in soccer. I felt it was my duty to support them.

“It turned out to be a really special occasion. Around the room I saw many well-known figures from across Northern Ireland society, united in a collective effort to lead football out of the past and into a genuinely shared space.

“The story of Belfast Celtic is embedded in the social and political history of the city. The drama is a celebration of diversity. What happened to Belfast Celtic is a reminder of what occurs when we don’t respect difference, when we allow it to become an excuse for violence and negative politics.” After a decade in the job, Boyd feels that this latest initiative has set his work on a new upward trajectory. “This is not a PR exercise for the IFA,” he emphasises. “Elements of what we are doing are very painful but it’s important that we learn from it. This event at Stormont feels like our gala, our cup final.

“Community relations work is about individual journeys and there’s no better way of bringing people on that journey than imaginatively and creatively.”

“If we are serious about reconciliation, we need to think about it in every context,” concludes McDevitt.

“The play challenges us as politicians, peacemakers and legislators. I felt it was important that my colleagues at Stormont should have the chance to see it. It deserves to echo across that hall, to be heard in the very chamber that would have ignored those same issues, way back when.”