THE SINN FÉIN Minister for Sport paid her first visit to Windsor Park in south Belfast last night to watch Northern Ireland play the Faroe Islands in the European 2012 qualifier.
Carál Ní Chuilín did not, however, take her seat until after the British national anthem was played at the stadium. That decision sparked a minor political row with DUP Assembly member Gregory Campbell accusing her of disrespect in failing to be present for God Save the Queen.
The Minister was already embroiled in controversy earlier this summer over her appointment as a special adviser of Mary McArdle, who was convicted in connection with the 1984 IRA murder in Belfast of Mary Travers (22).
Ahead of last night's game, Ms Ní Chuilín said she should be allowed the same consideration that the GAA showed to former DUP minister for sport Edwin Poots when he attended his first Gaelic football match – similarly, he did not appear in the stand until after Amhrán na bhFiannwas played.
“I’m asking for the same sensitivities to be afforded to myself,” she said.
Mr Campbell in turn said that if he were attending a game in the Republic he would, as a matter of courtesy, stand for the Irish national anthem.
The Minister attended the game, sitting in the directors’ box, at the invitation of the Irish Football Association.
She was welcomed to the ground by association president Jim Shaw and its chief executive Patrick Nelson. At half-time she joined them for refreshments, before watching the second half of the game.
The stadium is also the home ground of Linfield football club, which has a dedicated unionist and loyalist following.
Over the years there have been complaints of sectarian singing and chanting at Linfield and Northern Ireland games, with two of the most bitter occasions when the Republic played the North in the mid-1990s.
However in the past decade a serious effort has been made to address the sectarian problems and to make Windsor Park a “warmer place” for Catholics and nationalists, and generally for families.
The head of the association’s community relations Michael Boyd, who was also at the game last night, said Ms Ní Chuilín’s presence indicated the progress made in transforming Windsor Park. “Northern Ireland is moving forward and this is just another part of it,” he said.
Asked was Windsor Park now a “warm place” for nationalists he replied: “I think it is a lot more friendly now than it ever has been.
“We don’t make a big song and dance about this but there are many community groups, including Catholic groups, attending games here, and that is now a regular feature of Windsor Park.
“Most games now sell out and you will see a lot more families here. The songs you would have heard in the old days have been replaced with more sectarian-free, family-friendly songs. There definitely has been a big improvement,” he added.
Northern Ireland won last night’s match against the Faroe Islands four nil.