Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Can the Irish League defeat bigots?

Shutterstock" > Sectarian singing at football matches – should we accept it, ignore it or challenge it?
Sectarian singing at football matches – should we accept it, ignore it or challenge it? Shutterstock

Sectarian singing at football matches – should we accept it, ignore it or challenge it?

My heart says we should challenge it but my head says we would be wasting our time.

Perhaps if we ignore it, it will go away but we have tried that before and it hasn't worked.

As they say throughout the sporting world, let's begin by looking at the positives. The picture isn't as grim and depressing as it used to be.

On the international stage the atmosphere at Windsor Park is brilliant.

The Northern Ireland fans fought a brave and noble fight and they won it.

There's no sectarian chanting on international nights because the decent fans won't tolerate it. A boring, tedious chant of 'No Surrender' during the National Anthem is as bad as it gets. In the Irish League too, there's a lot less bigoted bile at matches. One of the reasons for that trend is that the crowds are smaller.

I've been watching Irish League football for nearly 30 years and can remember when much bigger crowds created atmospheres that were a lot more tense and hostile.

But if we say this is not a live issue for Irish League football anymore we are deluding ourselves. The sectarian stain is still with us. We heard the chants at Windsor Park last Saturday and we heard the chants at Windsor earlier in the season and at Solitude. But I'm not interested in where it comes from – I'm interested in whether it's worth tackling. And I'm not raising this issue to criticise Irish League clubs.

There are plenty of people who would relish the opportunity to use these chants as a stick to beat it with.

I prefer to look at the bigger picture. Unless you are prepared to lift the Irish League out of Northern Ireland and drop it in another European country it's not going to be immune from the cancer of sectarianism which has blighted all our lives. How can Irish League clubs be held responsible if a few morons are determined to embarrass themselves?

On a related point, why the rush to bring a Union flag or Tricolour to an Irish League ground? Is it a football match or a political rally? Sometimes I think there are more flags than people in this country. Somewhere in the countryside there must be a secret flag-making factory employing thousands of people and keeping our economy afloat.

If only we could keep politics away from sport's door. Even poor Rory McIlroy can't dodge it – people are hungry to give him a label, telling him he should represent either Britain or Ireland at the next Olympics. Whether Rory is Protestant, Catholic, British or Irish means nothing to me. The fact that he's an Ulsterman and one of the best golfers in the world means everything to me.

The Irish League, with its significant working class following, finds it difficult to operate in world without bigots – despite the fact clubs open their door to everyone and create inclusive environments. Football across the world offers a platform for people from different backgrounds to find a new common purpose.

This country would be a more depressing place if there was no Irish League.

However, does this mean clubs should turn a blind eye to sectarian chanting?

If they choose to address the issue I feel they can be pro-active. The alternative is to ignore it and run the risk of this behaviour damaging the reputation of their club and its supporters. Surely a few of these serial offenders can be identified and then banned. No-one's asking stewards to start removing people from crowds but if video evidence is needed use cameras. Just think of the powerful message that would send out to supporters. And the same goes for the 'fans' who chucked missiles at Cliftonville players on Saturday – catch them and ban them. Having said all this, maybe I'm being naive and if I am I'd be the first to hold my hand up and say so.

Maybe this is our culture. This is our way of life. This is the best that we can do. I understand it's an issue that is perhaps too big for clubs and it's well down their list of priorities.

And I understand there's a lot of anger in our community as well as heightened tensions and weak political leadership.

Maybe we can't beat this cancer and there's no point in fighting it.

But as we reflect on the events of the past few months, I prefer to draw the conclusion that we could all do much better.

After all, the children born in Northern Ireland this week aren't born bigots – it's the rest of us letting them down.

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