Still from the footage. Photo Source: The Irish News
Kyle Thompson, Contributor.
On Sunday evening, disturbing footage emerged from a bar in the loyalist area of Sandy Row, Belfast. The twenty second video showed a number of Northern Ireland ‘fans’ wearing their green and white jerseys singing ‘we hate Catholics’ to the tune of Tiffany’s ‘I think we’re alone now.’ This footage is not a representation of 2019’s Northern Ireland supporter base and is a betrayal of the process set in motion by the likes of Michael Boyd, the IFA Community Relations Officer behind the landmark Football For All programme created in 2001.
For many years, Northern Ireland games were not a welcoming environment for Catholics. There have indeed been many dark days, the most vivid of which was a 1993 World Cup qualifier with the Republic of Ireland. Set against the backdrop of the Shankill Bomb and Greysteel Massacre, a febrile atmosphere took hold of Windsor Park. Due to security concerns, the Republic of Ireland team, much to the chagrin of manager Jack Charlton, were forced to fly the 100-mile journey from Dublin to Belfast. With political tensions heightened, Northern Ireland fans chanted of ‘Trick or Treat’, the term shouted by the loyalist gunmen before opening fire upon the Rising Sun bar. In this respect, the game at Windsor Park that night reflected the political environment in Northern Ireland at the time. Crucially however, the IFA came to embrace the societal optimism enjoyed in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Football For All was a strategy directly targeted at increasing participation from across all sections of the community, all genders and all abilities. A crucial aspect of this was to bring about a change in the behaviour of Northern Ireland’s fans. This hasn’t been a perfect transformation; few things since the Good Friday Agreement has been. While problems remain, not least the persistent cry of ‘no surrender’ during the singing of God Save the Queen before the game, the adjustment of the fans to chant non-sectarian songs and cultivate a genuinely positive match-day environment cannot be discounted. The award of the Medal of the City of Paris for the contribution to Euro 2016 by Northern Ireland fans was a culmination of eighteen-years of effort by the IFA.
Those filmed on Sunday night have undermined this achievement. It doesn’t matter as to whether they attend games or not, what matters is perception. The Northern Ireland football team has undertaken a journey, but the nature of their starting point means any developments they achieve remains a fragile victory. For many Catholics, observations of the Northern Ireland side are (understandably) tainted by the real discrimination experienced at Windsor Park throughout The Troubles. This is what makes the video so frustrating. I am part of the ‘Green and White Army.’ I love Northern Ireland as a country, and I love Northern Irish football, at all levels. The nature of our society means their will always be dissenters, bad apples. It happened when the Catholic captain of Northern Ireland, Neil Lennon, felt forced to retire from international football following death threats in 2002. The IFA stepped up their efforts since then to transform the National Stadium environment. I would encourage anyone and everyone to experience the atmosphere around the ground in match-day family zones, and within the stadium come kick-off. The IFA have rightly condemned the events in this video. Widespread condemnation should be forthcoming from local politicians, not least the DUP’s Christopher Salford whose constituency office is a matter of steps away from the bar in question. For the IFA, it must be a regroup and a continuation of the remarkable journey of transformation that has been in motion for twenty years.