Move to call off football game 'taken too quickly'
The decision to postpone a high-profile Irish League clash due to loyalist protesters was taken too hastily, it has been claimed. And there are concerns the move could set a dangerous precedent, said a former Belfast Lord Mayor.
The weekend match between Crusaders and Cliftonville was called off following talks between the two clubs after around 20 protesters clashed with police outside the Shore Road ground prior to the start of the Belfast derby.
Former Mayor Jim Rodgers – a lifelong member of Glentoran FC who worked with Sport NI for over a decade – said he was disappointed the game between "two great clubs" was called off.
"Religion or politics should not be brought into sport," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"We can't have our great game, the wonderful game of football, being disrupted. Saturday has cost Crusaders a huge amount of money. It's worrying to think a small number of people could stop others getting to venues across Northern Ireland."
Mr Rodgers said he was aware of the efforts of both clubs since last November to ensure the game passed off without incident.
He added: "People were looking forward to this game tremendously. I think the decision to call it off was too hasty. I feel they could have maybe given it an hour."
Both teams released statements after the game voicing regret over having to call the game off.
A police spokesman on Monday said the decision to postpone was decided after consultation between both clubs. It is believed the decision has left Crusaders FC up to £15,000 out of pocket.
Months of dialogue took place between the two clubs in the run-up to Saturday's match to ensure it passed off without incident.
Among agreed measures was the bussing of some Cliftonville fans to the ground, and a 'friendship walk' between supporters.
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle called for universal political condemnation of Saturday's scenes .
He said: "These measures even included a planned cross-community walk to the football ground. However this good work was disrupted by another un-notified and disruptive protest."
An IFA spokesman said the postponement "for reasons not related to football is grossly unfair to the players, fans and officials of both clubs who work so hard and dedicate so much time to our domestic game".
High profile protester Willie Frazer, who was present on Saturday, claimed he had received some 20 phone calls from Crusaders fans in support of the demo, and laid blame for the postponement of the game with the PSNI.
"This had nothing to do with flags and I had nothing to do with organising it," he said.
"It wasn't organised by the Ulster People's Forum as a flags protest, it was local people who rang me and asked me to go over.
"They told me they were sick and tired of having their property damaged when this match is played. If the police had spoken to protesters the match could have been facilitated."
Three people were arrested and charged in relation to the trouble. Two men –aged 48 and 47 – and a 21-year-old woman will appear before Laganside Magistrates Court next month.