Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Indulging mob rule an own goal for progress

Cancelling the north Belfast derby between Crusaders and Cliftonville gifted flag protesters a penalty kick to score a propaganda victory, writes Henry McDonald

Loyalists flag protestors outside Crusaders Football Club in north Belfast
Loyalists flag protestors outside Crusaders Football Club in north Belfast

He stood out among the knot of Spanish and German tourists boarding the Aircoach in O'Connell Street last Saturday because of his tracksuit.

It bore the badge of an Irish League Championship side, based in a mainly loyalist part of Northern Ireland, who are unlikely to command much – if any – support among football fans in Dublin.

As the coach set off north, we got talking and the young Dubliner in the sports gear explained that he plays for a side in the second tier of Northern Irish football.

On the journey along the M1, he explained how much he loves playing for the team in the north, contrasting the way he is "taken by the hand" in Northern Ireland, compared to his treatment while at a League of Ireland club, where his talents were ignored.

After all the negative publicity of late, this was something to be proud of. Here was a young footballer from the northside of Dublin, who genuinely enjoyed making the two-hour trip each weekend to link up with his teammates in Northern Ireland.

In spite of the ongoing sectarian toxicity of the flag protests, here was an example of someone from outside accentuating the positive about this place and feeling welcomed in the solidarity of the Northern Ireland football scene.

This feeling of pride was replaced with depression less than three hours later as I tried to make my way towards Seaview, home of Crusaders, for the north Belfast derby.

A crucial clash between the Crues and Cliftonville, which would perhaps decide the fate of the Irish Premier League, had to be called off due to a Union flag-related demonstration on the Shore Road.

Two-and-a-half thousand supporters had to go home disappointed, Crusaders lost lucrative revenue and may even face a hefty fine over the cancellation.

It was, as former Ireland rugby international and British and Irish Lion Trevor Ringland noted yesterday, "an attack on sport".

There are serious questions to be raised as to who placed the ball on the penalty spot, minus a goalkeeper, for flag protesters, like Willie Frazer, to score a minor victory on the Shore Road last Saturday.

Why, for example, did the PSNI allow a relatively small band of loyalist demonstrators (some estimate there were around only 30 of them) to stop the game?

This particular question should be set in some historical context in terms of Irish League football.

Let us go back in time to 1979, one week after Cliftonville won the Irish Cup for the first time by beating Portadown 3-2 in a thrilling final at Windsor Park.

This was the season the Solitude side secured a cup double, defeating Crusaders at Seaview on penalties in the Co Antrim Shield.

By the PSNI's standards of today, however, the final would never have happened. Prior to the match, the UDA issued a death-threat against Cliftonville fans, warning them to stay away from the Shore Road, following complaints from local residents about hooligansim and vandalism by some sections of Cliftonville's 'Red Army'.

In response, the RUC decided to deploy 1,000 officers along the Shore Road, Glandore Avenue and Skegoneill Avenue on the day of the final.

This massive security operation marked a world record in terms of policing soccer matches. Other forces in the UK, such as Strathclyde (that still polices Celtic-Rangers matches, although not this season) expressed astonishment that around 1,000 RUC officers were policing about 3,000 Cliftonville and Crusaders supporters, that is, one policeman or woman for every three fans.

It is worth remembering that 1979 was a particularly bloodsoaked year in the Northern Ireland Troubles. In that year, almost all of the Shankill Butchers gang had been jailed, although their leader, Lenny Murphy, and the remnants of his murder-squad continued to stalk Belfast for Catholic victims.

The INLA killed Airey Neave, one of Margaret Thatcher's closest aides, in the Palace of Westminster. The IRA later murdered Lord Louis Mountbatten, along with his 14-year-old grandson, an 82-year-old woman and a 15-year-old local boy on the same day that they killed 18 paratroopers at Warrenpoint.

In general, 1979 marked a major upsurge in terrorist and sectarian violence. And yet a game scheduled to be played in one of the most dangerous corners of Northern Ireland still went ahead. The show at Seaview just had to go on, in spite of everything.

So how, in a time of relative peace and the absence of 24/7 warfare, can a couple of dozen demonstrators do what couldn't be achieved in 1979: forcing the cancellation of another pivotal north Belfast derby?

The stakes here for Irish football and the wider community are enormous. The hatred on display along the Shore Road should not be allowed to obscure the excellent cross-community work both clubs are engaged in, much of it carried out under the media radar and deserving of far more political support.

The enemies of peace back in 1979 had a strategy to make Northern Ireland not only ungovernable, but also wholly abnormal. But a decent core of society maintained some semblance of normality and civilisation in the darkest of times.

It is, therefore, one of the greatest ironies of our time that the loyalist hardcore, who were responsible for stopping a game of football last Saturday, did something terror groups on either side failed to do more than three decades ago.

They are, in their counter-productive, delusional folly, "the brilliant allies of their own gravediggers" (to quote the Czech writer Milan Kundera).

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