For the uninitiated, this week Northern Ireland’s football team faces its most important few days in over 30 years with two World Cup play-off games against Switzerland.
On Thursday, all roads led to Windsor Park, Belfast. Didn’t they?
Well, not all roads obviously because there are many people who simply do not support Northern Ireland, even in football and even in the new dispensation we are living in.
I think I would prefer that we were all treating this as just a football match, and to a certain extent most people do look at it in those simple terms.
And, trust me, I am the last person that wants to see sport and politics mixed. But perhaps we should acknowledge that the clue is in the term “international” and its very nature brings some level of question of national identity into it
The comedian Billy Connolly does a routine in which he speaks with humour about ISIS attacking Glasgow, and says the locals can’t understand how you can have religious fanatics without a football team! It’s funny, and it also touches a significant nerve about the beautiful game.
I’m pleased to say that over recent years, this has become less of an issue at Windsor Park. I recall with some disgust the day in November 1993 when the Republic came to play a World Cup qualifier, and I was abhorred at the dark atmosphere of sectarian hate. Those days are long gone, and I prefer to remember times like the 1980s when Martin O’Neill captained a team that included Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong, alongside Norman Whiteside and Jimmy Nicholl.
More recently, it’s heartening to see Catholics coming to support the team and there’s been a fresher, cleaner atmosphere in which Celtic players like Paddy McCourt are cheered like heroes.
Sadly, though, some people want to spoil it.
Enter this week, the Belfast loyalist, Jamie Bryson who was on the BBC talking about the fact that Northern Ireland players will wear poppy emblems on their shirt tonight for an act of remembrance. Bryson maintains that any NI player who doesn’t wear the poppy shouldn’t be allowed to play.
This really gives me the hump.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the issue of the amount of airtime the BBC gives Bryson, the protester who was soundly rejected by his own electorate.
The three issues I have are the fact that Bryson is trying to politically hijack football, the misuse of the poppy by him and others, and indeed, concerns that sport is mirroring a society that after years of progress is retreating back into sectarian silos.
Bryson’s “our wee country” mentality suggests he and his ilk want to make Windsor Park and the Northern Ireland team a cold house for anyone outside his loyalist ideology.
The current team is mixed, yet like the 80s everyone stands for God Save the Queen. Personally, I think (like Scotland and Wales) NI should have its own anthem and flag. That’s my opinion for a new Northern Ireland.
I’m not particularly enthused, either, that there was an act of remembrance on Thursday. I think there’s a time and place for it, and I don’t quite get the modern obsession football has with such displays.
This leads to pressure on players, and some quite disgraceful treatment of some such as James McClean, who was the subject of abuse and missiles being thrown at him at his club, West Brom because he didn’t wear a poppy.
McClean is from Derry and could play for Northern Ireland; but as an Irish Republican he considers himself Irish and elects to play for the Republic.
As a Derryman, he has explained fully his reluctance to wear a poppy.
Surely that is the freedom of choice that people fought and died in war for. In fact, there are many people who consider themselves Unionist or British who are reluctant for reasons of principle about war who don’t wear a poppy. But it would seem the poppy is being dragged into an undignified row; I heard one journalist on television recently saying she was fed up with people who refused; just wear it and don’t question it. A remarkable thing for a journalist to ask for things not to be questioned.
And I saw a Facebook post from someone who wrote: I will not wear a poppy until right wing racists stop doing Hitler salutes near war memorials as they demand I wear a poppy. My great uncle Andy died punching Nazis for my right to freedom to choose to sing anthems, fly flags and wear poppies.
Wear your poppy with pride if you want, but don’t demonise someone as a lesser human being if they don’t.
It’s concerning, though, that perhaps Bryson and his lot have a creeping influence and that could be a concern for wider society nearly 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement.
I read with fascination the account of Peadar Heffron, the Catholic PSNI officer and gaelic footballer who was so grievously injured in a booby-trap bomb, written by Joe Brolly.
In a follow-up piece, Brolly analyses where we are as a society. He writes that the Good Friday Agreement offered the hope of a fair, pluralist, respectful Northern Ireland. He says Nationalism, particularly middle-class Nationalism, was open to the idea of a modern, pluralist Northern Ireland, but accuses Unionism, particularly the present DUP of squandering that opportunity.
The present impasse at Stormont is a symptom of the failure to move forward, and there is a danger we’re slipping back.
Sport doesn’t exist in a vacuum, in fact in many ways a working class sport such as football is a touchstone for society.
The Irish Football Association, for all its faults, has done tremendous work in modernising the stadium and organisation, and indeed in its community relations work. And let’s not run away with the idea that Windsor Park is heading back to the dark days of 1993, it’s far from it.
But let’s not have our progress stilted by the likes of Jamie Bryson, either, and he can stick his fleg.
Let the games be all about the football, and hope that Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant players can make it to the World Cup finals in Russia next year, along with the Republic of Ireland. The true fans of both sides had a fantastic time in France last year. A repeat in Russia would be good.