Local football’s first openly gay referee claims association just told him to ‘raise his tolerance level’ after abuse
Northern Ireland’s only openly gay football referee has accused the IFA of failing to support him after he was subjected to vile homophobic slurs during a match.
Ryan Hanna told the Belfast Telegraph that local football’s governing body would have preferred him to “varnish over” an incident in which a player allegedly called him a “gay b*****d” and a “f**king f****t”.
The Co Antrim man also claimed that he was told to “raise his tolerance level” because other referees don’t react to being called “fatty” or “baldy”.
Mr Hanna, who is originally from Ballymoney but now lives in Newry, said the alleged incident — and the Irish Football Association’s subsequent treatment of it — has affected his mental health.
But he added that, despite the ordeal, he would not be giving up a job he loves — one he is getting particularly good ratings for at the moment.
“I was a very isolated figure after that incident and I felt I wasn’t getting the proper support when I really needed it; it was an horrendous time,” said Mr Hanna, who is currently recovering from a car accident.
The 32-year-old’s comments come after Gerard Perry, chairman of the FAI’s national referee committee, told the Oireachtas committee on culture and sport on Wednesday that abuse of match officials, players and team officials is a “growing problem in Irish society”.
The Belfast Telegraph put Mr Hanna’s allegations to the Irish FA. In response, a spokesperson said the local organisation was against all discrimination.
“Our head of refereeing, Trevor Moutray, met with Ryan after the incident to offer support, followed by a number of related email exchanges,” the Irish FA told this newspaper.
“Despite the case being not proven by the Disciplinary Committee, regular contact at the time was maintained.
“The Irish FA is against all forms of discrimination and, although allegations of homophobic abuse are extremely rare, there is a commitment from the refereeing department to deliver equality and diversity training to all referees, likely to take place in 2022.”
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Hanna revealed that his boyhood ambition was to be a PE teacher but he feared his sexuality would ultimately be a barrier that he couldn’t overcome in Northern Ireland’s society.
He turned to football coaching for five years until 2010 and then, after ‘coming out’, took to refereeing in 2014 because he believed there was less direct involvement with the players, and fewer chances of being put in uncomfortable situations related to his sexuality.
Everything was going well until that pre-season friendly in the summer of 2019.
“A player got extremely abusive and aggressive after he didn’t get a free kick, and he started behaving out of control”, Mr Hanna recalled.
“He wouldn’t calm down so I advised the manager to remove him from the field of play.
“As he was walking off, the player gave me a volley of abuse before going into the dugout.
“I moved into his dugout area to show him the red card and it was then he called me a gay b*****d and a f***ing f****t”.
Mr Hanna said he was severely shaken by what happened but managed to compose himself and “somehow got through the game”.
“There were a few hundred people there... did I want to blow this game up with 24 minutes left? I decided the best thing to do was to pretend that nothing had happened,” he said.
“I was on my own. I felt that for my own safety it was best to continue and not draw attention to this.”
After the game, the abusive player’s manager brought him over to apologise.
“I was shaking at that point; I felt very vulnerable,” said Mr Hanna.
“I felt coerced into shaking the player’s hand; all I wanted to do was to get away as quickly as possible.”
An official from the abusive player’s team later apologised and said what happened was unacceptable, but Mr Hanna said he knew his sexuality would no longer be a private matter from that day onwards.
When Mr Hanna subsequently contacted the IFA, he was asked if he “really wanted to make a big deal of it”.
“I was asked if it would not be better ‘varnishing over’ the incident or ‘watering it down’,” he said.
“I was advised to say [at any disciplinary hearing] that the player had used abusive language, but not to go into details because once I ‘let the cat out of the bag’ I might not get it back in.
“After that, I was expecting someone from the association to phone me to see if I was okay. I got nothing.
“Nobody contacted me. In my mind, I was left a very isolated figure. As time went by I started to struggle with my mental health.”
Mr Hanna, who reported the incident to the PSNI a few days after the game and included it in his official match report — which this newspaper has seen — reached out to the Rainbow Project, which provided counselling and support.
“If it hadn’t been for them, I probably would have quit refereeing,” he said.
No action was taken by the IFA following a disciplinary hearing in October 2019, during which the player was accompanied by a barrister, his manager and club secretary.
With the player refusing to comment under instruction, the IFA disciplinary committee dismissed the matter on the grounds that “the evidence did not meet the threshold for action.”
Mr Hanna, who has a partner, said it was a harrowing time.
“I felt really let down by the process,” he said.
“If it was a racism or sexism issue I feel the issue would have been addressed better. I feel the association isn’t quite there when it comes to dealing with LGBT issues.”
He said his anxiety over the issue wasn’t helped following a meeting with IFA officials in which he complained about a “lack of support” following the incident.
“They advised me to raise my tolerance level,” Mr Hanna said.
“I was told that other referees get called ‘baldy’ and ‘fatty’ and they don’t react to it; ‘you don’t see them sending the players off’.”
Mr Hanna, who continued to referee despite what happened, said he couldn’t “let them win” adding that he felt “I had to take a stand”.
“I didn’t want to quit and make it easy for this to be brushed under the carpet,” he said.
“I needed to find the courage to go on.”
Paul Larkin, chairman of the Northern Ireland Referees Association (NIRA), said the organisation supports “colleagues who find themselves victims of abusive behaviour”.
“We do accept that some may have a difference of opinion on subjective incidents during a football match and that is natural, but many cross the line of a mere objection, to the extent of issuing personal abuse on top of their views,” Mr Larkin told the Belfast Telegraph.
“Hopefully we can change the mindset that it is acceptable within football to abuse a match official, opposing players etc, but this needs us all to be educated on the personal trauma that such abuse entails.
“Often to the extent that some match officials fear leaving the house in the event of being confronted for merely undertaking a hobby.”