Belfast Telegraph

Politicians stay out of our game unless you have something constructive to bring to the party

Clubs are showing Stormont how to provide a brighter future

By Graham Luney

I've been thinking a lot about irony this past week. The irony of 'terrorists' shooting people who misbehave. If they are going to dish out their own punishment for bad behaviour by 'appointment' there's going to be a 10-month waiting list across Northern Ireland.

Then there's the irony of a politician telling an Irish League club to get their house in order.

Cliftonville felt the need to hit back when DUP MLA Gordon Dunne falsely claimed a Hamas flag made an appearance at Windsor Park in a match against Linfield.

Listen up all our politicians. Don't even think of commenting on our domestic game unless you have something constructive to bring to the party.

A little bit of financial help would be welcome as our clubs get on with the business of doing what our political representatives should be doing… promoting tolerance and respect.

Northern Ireland is a segregated place and Irish League clubs can't step into a time machine and be transported back to 100 years ago.

Lift them and drop them in Harrogate, Yorkshire, and we could all live happily ever after… A few unsavoury characters will always filter through the turnstiles but the efforts of our clubs to keep this society moving forward should never be subject to ridicule.

People talk about role models. Our brave sportsmen and women are role models, sadly not the politicians who are doing such a fine job of running the country that people are living in fear of coming under attack in interface areas or that their homes will be flooded every time there's heavy rain.

If you want a role model look no further than Tommy Breslin, a gentleman and a winner. Manager/Coach of the Year at the 2013 Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, Tommy has become a Cliftonville legend and like most of us he abhors sectarianism.

Tommy is a proud football man, proud of his club and his players' achievements and that's all he wants to talk about.

Tommy couldn't offend anyone. If he turned up at the loyalist protest camp on Twaddell Avenue wrapped in a Tricolour the locals would still serve him tea and sausage rolls.

But with regard to the issue of flags in football grounds, my personal view is that I have no desire to see Union Jacks or Tricolours in our stadiums.

What is the purpose of bringing them into grounds other than to antagonise? It's a football match, not a political rally.

I think we have seen enough flags to last us a lifetime. Perhaps our universities should start offering courses in flag making skills. In Northern Ireland it's a job for life.

Politicians like talking about flags but they aren't so keen to talk about investment in a game which has enriched our lives during some very dark times.

Clubs have raised significant funds through imaginative ways to enhance facilities and in some cases stay in business but they need the support of the community and those of political influence.

However, our clubs still cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to protecting their image and reputation from those with a sectarian agenda.

They must be prepared to issue life bans to anyone found guilty of causing trouble and I've no doubt clubs won't be found wanting when it comes to rooting out a few 'undesirables' as their good name, proud image and reputation is worth protecting.

While sectarianism hasn't gone away, the levels of tension at Irish League matches have dropped dramatically in 20 years.

There's much less hostility among rival supporters but issues around the north-Belfast derby at Seaview highlight how clubs can still be dragged into a mess manufactured by others.

Integrated education may be an uncomfortable concept for some of our politicians but our Irish League clubs will continue to play an important role in the nurturing of our young men and women, instilling them with the right values.

They may come from different backgrounds but football is their religion.

The Irish League will never be perfect but our politicians will have to raise their game if they want to earn the kind of respect our domestic game now earns.

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