Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

The passionate kiss that is the heartening symbol of a new Belfast becoming more oblivious to sectarianism

So in love: Carl and Christine after the fight.
Carl Frampton with his nephew Leon

Imagine nine thousand people in east Belfast, chanting in unison, 'Alice, Alice, who the **** is Alice?'. Or 'Sweet Caroline', waving their hands in the air, exultant with pride in a Belfast boy. And who is the boy – well, the man then? It's a hard wee tyke from loyalist Tiger's Bay, adorned with tattoos, and ready for action.

Usually when the east of the city erupts like this the rest of us stay at home or take cover, but this is a mixed crowd, and the star at the heart of it is a good mixer too.

Carl Frampton has three big dates to think about; his world title fight in March next year, and more imminently, his stag party and his wedding this Sunday to Poleglass girl, Christine Dorrian, who would have a right to be miffed: she can't stand the sight of her love taking punches and she gets sidelined before a fight because Carl has to stay in a hotel while in toughening up.

Maybe the 26-year-old's manager, Barry McGuigan, buys the theory about avoiding intimacy to preserve the power of a punch; maybe it's just to let him get his sleep.

But you could not imagine a more heartening symbol of a Belfast that is oblivious to sectarianism.

Christine and Carl could only have met on neutral territory like Kelly's nightclub in Portrush, having grown up in hard areas on opposite sides of a sectarian divide.

Talking about their love across the divide story, Frampton told an interviewer at the weekend: "Poleglass in west Belfast is a completely republican area.

"The first time we went on a date I was so nervous I ended up getting drunk. I forgot to pay for her food. She still takes the mickey out of me."

And drawn on whether it had been difficult falling in love with a Catholic girl, he replied: "It didn't matter to me but I knew it annoyed some people and it was difficult – especially with me being from an interface area where there was trouble all the time."

Back in the Odyssey the roars go up again between rounds as a girl in a leather bikini takes the ring to hold up a big sign with a number on it to let everyone know what stage things are at, as if this crowd couldn't be trusted to count. It seems just the icing on the cake that Frampton won!

He took Jeremy Parodi out in the sixth round and secured his right to contend for a world title.

And what's good about that is that he is such a nice guy.

He carries on the tradition of amicable, soft-hearted boxers, genial little men who could put a fist through a brick wall but are so soft spoken and good natured you'd never expect that of them

On Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the fight, Mel Boyle and his family were having tea in the Europa Hotel in Belfast and noticed that they were sitting beside Frampton and McGuigan and others on the team.

"I said, just joking, 'Have you any tickets?'" Mel told me. "And McGuigan sorted us out for half price and I got a ringside seat beside Eamonn Holmes and Jackie Fullerton. It was amazing."

This is all part of a tradition that in the Eighties was exemplified by fighters like Hugh Russell and Barry McGuigan himself.

These were men who came out of communities and could be located in them, if anyone was asking. Russell is a photo journalist of distinction and is now vice chair of the Christian Brothers Past Pupils Union Camera Club. McGuigan was a Clones man. It's just one of the sorry facts about this place that we know where people come from and can place them at one side or the other of a divide.

But the miracle is that occasionally the divide counts for nothing. And boxing, in a city in which so much sport actually substitutes for sectarian factionalism, can make the old quarrel irrelevant.

Speaking to The Guardian newspaper at the weekend, Barry McGuigan rated Frampton's achievement in evading sectarianism higher than his own.

He said this was harder in Tiger's Bay than in Clones.

"Carl comes from this area where your territory is marked. There have been many horrible things said to him but he's had the equanimity not to be involved. While I spent loads of my life in Belfast it was easy for me to stay separate and look at it from the outside. Even though I lived in a republican town it wasn't as severe or nasty."

McGuigan paid tribute to Carl's fiancee Christine too. Mum to Carl's two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, she has a criminology degree, and Carl freely admits the enforced separation from the pair of them, while he prepares for a fight is "getting harder all the time". McGuigan represents them as part of a new generation that is free from the old sectarian expectations.

"Carl comes from a hardened loyalist area and Christine comes from a hardened republican area. And they've risen above it all.

"Christine is a beautiful girl, really sensible, clever, bright. This is the next generation."

Barry McGuigan had entered a mixed marriage himself at a time when that could be seen as letting your side down and could attract a brick through your window and worse in some areas.

Frampton has spoken about a close friend, 16-year-old Glen Branagh, who died trying to throw a pipe bomb, given to him by loyalist paramilitaries during a sectarian riot in north Belfast after Remembrance Day 12 years ago.

Another friend was shot during an attack on a crowd round an Eleventh night bonfire.

Yet, for all this, in a self-deprecating way, he acknowledges that things were worse in Barry McGuigan's day.

And he never bought the myth that most people endorse sectarianism. "I saw trouble I shouldn't have seen. But 95% of the people there are good and they're coming out to support me – just like in New Lodge which is the opposition or whatever you want to call it."

He added: "In boxing we're allowed to come together. Protestants and Catholics, the north and south, everyone. I'm in an Irish vest, even on a mural in Tiger's Bay, because boxing brings the communities together."

It's worth noting this mural has never been defaced with political slogans.

What is evident from the stories of boxers who have come out of definable communities here is that they don't have to disown their past, their roots or their connections in order to distance themselves from sectarianism; they are able to be themselves and win respect across the divide for what they do best.

That says something about them but it also says something about this place, that it is not as rigidly set in its ways as seemed obvious this year, just streets from where Carl Frampton stopped Jeremy Parodi in the sixth round to retain his European super bantam weight title and IBF international belts to become a contender for the world championship.

In the Odyssey on Saturday night, it was possible to believe that the future of this place is not so bleak as it often appears, that ordinary people have passions as strong as any that brought people onto the streets, but also entirely benign and admirable.

Carl and Christine maybe wouldn't want to be symbols of new possibility, but for now, that's precisely what they are.

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