Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

John Laverty: Outdated, racist and still in the rule book

It seems so long ago now. Even longer when you tell people about it and see the bemused looks on their faces.

But this was not a long time ago. Indeed, up until recently this sort of thing was part of everyday life here.

I'm talking about religious-based idealism being imposed on the public as the law of the land.

A well-quoted example of this was in Ballymena, where the DUP-controlled council kept the local leisure centre - and the kiddies' swings in the park - locked up on a Sunday.

The councillors believed in observing the Lord's Day - and therefore, courtesy of the bylaws they drew up, everyone else had to do the same thing. There was simply no choice.

The irony of course was that these same councillors were banging on virtually every week about the dangers of the good people of Ulster getting too close to the "Roman Catholic state" across the border.

Yes, just imagine that ... living in a country where the law of the land was so heavily influenced by the dominant religion; I mean, that would be anathema to everything the civic fathers stood for, wouldn't it?

Thankfully, we've moved away from those dark old days, and even the good old burghers of Ballymena are getting to grips with freedom of choice.

Yes, you can now visit Ballymena Leisure Centre on any given Sunday; it's open for business, and welcome to all creeds and colours.

Not that there's anything wrong with honouring the Sabbath per se, of course, and I for one have no qualms whatsoever with the folk who choose to do just that.

It's their right - just as it's other peoples' right to do the exact opposite if they so desire.

You see, we live in a new, glasnostic and free-spirted Northern Ireland where everyone's views and beliefs are respected, even if they're not necessarily agreed with.

It is, after all, fundamental democracy, the will of the people and all that.

It took a long time for all parties to recognise this, but now Stormont is a shining beacon for what can be achieved.

Yes despite the many significant changes that have been made here, there remains a small corner of Northern Ireland which doggedly clings to one element of the past.

And that is 20 Windsor Avenue, once the home of Titanic mastermind Thomas Andrews but better known now the headquarters of the Irish Football Association.

Now, this revelation might come as a bit of surprise to those of you who have marvelled at the IFA's transformation over the last few years.

Indeed, throughout the football world the Association's hardline stance against bigotry and sectarianism in sport has been lauded as an example for others to follow.

A pity then that they remain the only governing body in Europe that still prohibits playing football on a Sunday.

Yes, it's that old chestnut again. And if regular readers thought this column sounded somewhat familiar, they'd be right; I penned a similar lament just over two years ago.

That was just after the IFA had, in their wisdom, once again decided not to drop its "never on a Sunday" ruling - drawn up in a smoky committee room by good, God-fearing sons of Ulster six decades ago but hideously anacronistic now.

The rule of course is regularly flouted and a total joke to anyone who cares to examine it in any detail.

If, for instance, it was rigorously imposed, then any Northern Ireland players who turned out for their English or Scottish club sides on a Sunday would be liable to be suspended by the Association. But they do - and they aren't.

And it's not as if the Northern Ireland international team hasn't itself played on the Sabbath; remember the World Cup showdown with France back in in the latter stages of the 1982 World Cup?

The savage irony of that particular occasion was the refusal of winger Johnny Jameson to be considered for selection because it was against his religious beliefs to play football on a Sunday.

Johnny was never called up to represent his country again - yet he was the only one that day who was sticking rigidly to the Association's own edict. You really couldn't make it up.

Another thing: the Army and Womens football associations - which are under IFA jurisdiction - both turn out regularly on a Sunday.

Thing is, I suspect most of the bigwigs at the IFA would like to get shot of this albatross once and for all, and the sooner the better.

It looked likely that time a couple of years back, when the Association's new Constitution Committee started the wheels turning towards consigning the outdated ban to history.

Those wheels, however, seemingly ground to a halt.

Now, however, it appears, the Association is going to try once again to remove this embarrassing, anachronistic, overtly racist and highly discriminatory rule from its statutes.

Good. It's not as if lifting the ban will have a major impact anyway; I suspect most members will still opt for playing on a Saturday.

It would probably have a similar effect to the GAA binning their notorious Rule 21, which prevented members of the security forces playing gaelic games; a symbolic gesture rather than a seismic shift.

There is, of course, a more practical reason for all this; the simple fact that organisations which are seen to impinge on human rights and freedom of choice are not entitled to financial support from the Government.

And the Irish FA are certainly going to need quite a lot of that in the very near future.

New stadium, anyone?