Tipping Point: Will sectarianism follow the fans to France?

Despite the Football for All campaign, Northern Irish sports fans are still divided

Martin O’Neill: Understands only too well the nature of tribes. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Martin O’Neill: Understands only too well the nature of tribes. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Normality in the 1970s was an escort from the Argyll Regiment of the British Army – the Pancake heads – out of Windsor Park towards the Lisburn Road. That wasn’t the way many of the crowd had come in to the ground to watch Northern Ireland lose to Scotland 1-0.

They had arrived from the nationalist Falls Road, taking a route down the Donegal Road and then uneasily plodding through a loyalist stronghold called “The Village”. But on this April afternoon going back home that way was, advised acne-faced soldiers from Scotland, not advisable.

As an experiment in the theory that common interest can bring communities together, it was a dismal failure. The Catholics couldn’t stomach the sight of Union Jacks and Linfield flags being waved at an Irish team and the Protestants saw the catholic tricolours and Celtic scarves as poisonous popery.

Through the eyes of an 11-year-old, most of the Catholics had come to support David Hay, a Scotland player whose club was Celtic, and George Best, who pulled off the impossible by being loved equally by both sides.

But those fans didn’t take the trip from the Falls Road to Windsor Park to support Northern Ireland.

Georgie, at his petulant, disgraceful best that day, decided to pick up a piece of mud and throw it at the referee to draw his first red card at international level. Derek Dougan was up front, with Pat Jennings in goal.

But this was Windsor Park, which was located in the heartland of loyalist Belfast and was, along with the yellow Harland and Wolff cranes “Samson” and “Goliath”, a monument to the other tribe.

Second Captains

Cranes and floodlights

So Best slings mud and the crowd kick off. The afternoon descends into another squalid session of sectarian bile as the Taigs retreat to the narrow streets, the soldiers forming a thin line hold their shields above their heads deflecting the missiles raining down, certain in the knowledge that the very people they were protecting now would be stoning them the next day.

Martin O’Neill was too young to make that team but played seven years later under Danny Blanchflower in what was then called the British Championships.

Roll on time and when Ireland played Bosnia in the recent European playoff game, the famous Rock Bar on the Falls Road was drumming up custom for the evening, promising live football action from Dublin for the Republic’s match.

The Rock Bar tweets are often about Celtic, Cliftonville FC and The Wolfe Tones, who often appear with guest Bik McFarlane, a lover of Gaelic Football, who trained for the priesthood before joining the Provisional IRA. Sentenced to life, he took over from Bobby Sands in 1981 as Provisional IRA OC in the Maze. He’s a very good singer.

Yesterday in The Rock Bar it was Rebel Sunday. Their tweet after the 2-0 win over Bosnia went:“We’ve done it! We’re through! The Rock has erupted. Our nation is proud. Glory to Ireland. Euro 2016 here we come!!!” Another went: “The Falls Road loves you @JamesMcC14. A brave son of Ireland.”

The status of Derry-born James McClean is secure on the Falls Road since he elected to play for the Republic after representing the Northern Ireland Under-21 side. He opted for Martin O’Neill over Michael O’Neill. On the drinks menu in The Rock Bar is The Rebel Roy Cocktail and Tricolour Shots.

Martin O’Neill this week on RTÉ was asked to compare football and rugby fans. He described football fans as more “tribal” than the rugby chaps but, perhaps sensing he could dig quite a deep hole for himself, was reluctant to go any further.

The Irish Football Association has worked hard in its Football for All campaign to eradicate sectarianism from the game and stories of reconciliation do appear – the camogie team from St Mary’s College, who struggled to find an appropriate floodlit ground and were granted access by their neighbours at Linfield FC to their training facilities.

But it simply hasn’t worked.

For those disinclined to visit Belfast there are still the absurdly-named Peace Walls running through the city, separating Catholics from Protestants. A 2012 study found more than 100 fences, walls or barriers separating the communities, an increase in number since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

We don’t yet know where the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland will be placed in France at this summer’s European Championships, with the draw taking place on December 12th. But we do know that both Irish teams are seeded so that they won’t end up in the same pool.

Close-up view

But the fans this summer may find themselves uncomfortably mingling in the boulevards of Paris depending on where the teams are drawn to play.

It’s no longer the 1970s but there are some who believe that one set of fans in Lille and another group just over 1,000 kilometres away in, say, Marseille would be the best way to allow Irish love to spread itself among the French citizenry.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.