Soccer league to meet amid fears of clashes at Belfast ground

 

FOLLOWING Wednesday night's clashes between Catholic and Protestant soccer supporters in Belfast, the Irish Football League will meet today to decide whether the Cliftonville Glentoran game should be played at Cliftonville's ground, Solitude, tomorrow.

There are concerns of further clashes after the confrontation on Wednesday night when nationalist supporters of the north Belfast club Cliftonville were prevented by local Protestants in east Belfast from attending a cup tie against Crusaders at the Oval ground.

Three RUC men were injured when they moved in after Cliftonville supporters were stopped on their way to The Oval by a demonstration of Protestant residents opposed to the crowd passing through their area.

A petrol bomb was thrown during the disturbances, and three plastic bullets were fired by police when missiles were hurled, shattering windows of nearby houses.

The east Belfast Protestants and some of their political representatives claimed that Cliftonville supporters were blocked because on previous occasions they had caused damage to local property, and because some of them chanted sectarian pro IRA slogans.

But Mr Jim Boyce, the Cliftonville chairman and president of the Irish Football Association, did not accept the claims of vandalism as the reason for the blockade. What happened in east Belfast on Wednesday night was triggered by politics, he claimed.

He and the Cliftonville supporters believed the demonstration was in retaliation for nationalist protests against Orange parades passing through Catholic areas during the summer marching season.

He appealed for tomorrow's game against Cliftonville to go ahead at Solitude. The two sides had met eight times last season without trouble, he said, and he urged both sets of supporters to ensure that the good tradition of such games was maintained.

Mr Jackie Warren, secretary of Glentoran, said he hoped tomorrow's game would proceed. "Football has to be outside of the political domain. We are in the business of playing football, of trying to entertain people for 90 minutes. That is all we are trying to do," he said.

Mr Jim Rodgers, an Ulster Unionist councillor for east Belfast, implicitly agreed with Mr Boyce's contention that the east Belfast demonstration against Cliftonville related to the marching troubles of this summer.

Mr Rodgers said he had predicted, when nationalists on the lower Ormeau Road this summer demanded consent for loyalist parades, that this would provoke a response which could spread throughout the community and into areas such as sport.

Now Protestants in certain areas were responding that it was up to them to decide whether Cliftonville supporters should be allowed in certain areas. "We fear that this is going to spread through other Irish League grounds, and we need to do something quickly," Mr Rodgers said.

For the past two decades Cliftonville have been unable to play at their north Belfast home ground against Protestant supported Linfield because of sectarian disturbances between the two sets of supporters earlier in the Troubles.