A loyalist has labelled a planned footballing gesture to mark the 18th anniversary of the Loughinisland atrocity as “a recipe for disaster”.
The Republic of Ireland team, preparing for their second Euro 2012 match this evening, will wear black armbands when they meet Italy in their final group game in four days’ time.
Those same two teams were playing in World Cup USA in 1994 when the UVF opened fire inside the Heights Bar in the Co Down village, killing six Catholic men.
Monday’s Euro 2012 match falls on the exact same date, June 18 — 18 years on.
Families of the victims have welcomed the decision of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), backed by Uefa, to wear armbands, but Jackie McDonald, a prominent loyalist figure, is predicting “dire repercussions” for the sport.
“If the Northern Ireland team were to wear black armbands to commemorate the Shankill bomb, what way would that be received?” he asked.
The UDA leader has raised his concerns in Dublin, and hopes they will be heard both by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the FAI.
“I’m hoping that they [the FAI] will maybe reconsider,” McDonald said.
“Sport has always been a neutral area,” he told the Belfast Telegraph, “something we can use to bring people together and we have done for many years.
“But if the Republic’s team wear black armbands to commemorate a specific incident it will put tremendous pressure on people working cross-community and cross-border.
“It’s bringing politics into sport,” he said.
In explaining its thinking, the FAI has already acknowledged the “many, many other tragedies in Northern Ireland on both sides of the community”.
But McDonald still believes they are making a huge mistake.
“If they said it was for all the victims of the Troubles that would be better, without specifying a particular incident,” he said.
But, he emphasised his firm view: “They shouldn’t wear them [armbands] at all.”
And the loyalist also touched on another football controversy, the north-south tug-of-war over player eligibility.
“I believe there are four members of the Republic’s squad who could be playing for Northern Ireland, but for whatever reason they have decided to play for the south,” he said.
He then asked: “Can you imagine an all-Protestant Northern Ireland team?”
Another senior loyalist has also spoken to this newspaper on the armbands gesture, calling it “a bad decision”.
Winston ‘Winkie’ Rea was a key leadership figure in the 1994 loyalist ceasefire move, which came four months after the Loughinisland attack. He is also treasurer of the 1st Shankill Northern Ireland Supporters Club.
“I think the FAI have made their minds up. But, hopefully, in the future they will not bring politics into sport again,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“It takes us back instead of working for a better future for us all,” he continued.
“With the greatest respect to the families of those who lost their lives, I think it’s an awful decision.”
Six Catholic men were shot dead when UVF killers opened fire indiscriminately inside the Heights bar in Loughinisland, Co Down. The Republic defeated Italy 1-0 that night in the Giants Stadium in New York. Among those who died in the attack was Barney Green, aged 87, the oldest victim of the Troubles. Five other men were seriously wounded. No one has been convicted of the murders.