Belfast Telegraph

Ellis O'Hanlon: Why holding the national anthem debate in the hothouse atmosphere of a cup final was always a terrible idea

The discussion needs to be had in the close season, with due respect for positions on both sides

By Eilis O'Hanlon

There's nothing more tedious than a fixation with "flegs". Apart, that is, from an obsession with national anthems.

The row over the playing of God Save The Queen before the Irish Cup Final at the weekend just confirms again that some people in Northern Ireland need to get out more. Go for a nice walk, lads. Get some fresh air. Trust me, you'll feel so much better for it.

Flags and anthems might have a role to play in international competitions, which involve actual countries playing collectively as teams, but the same jingoistic bombast adds nothing to domestic clashes, even in places where there are no contested identities.

That's why, when the band plays the national anthem before the English FA Cup Final at Wembley, fans who sing along invariably change the words to "God save our gracious team". That's exactly as it should be.

Loyalty in local sport is to the club, perhaps even to a particular area. Nationality doesn't need to be dragged into it.

The counter-argument is that an anthem only takes a minute to get over with, so turning a deaf ear to it is probably the best way to handle these situations.

There's definitely some merit to that level-headed approach.

Cliftonville players and their manager chose, instead, to stage a silent protest, by bowing their heads during the playing of the anthem.

It wasn't a serious act of disrespect, as some unionists claimed, but it did introduce a sour note. Why let one ropey old tune spoil the big day?

That's not to blame the club, which hails from a solidly nationalist area of north Belfast, for requesting that God Save The Queen not be played at Windsor Park before the final against Coleraine last Saturday. They had every right to do so.

It's not an anthem to which their supporters feel any allegiance and playing it does create something of a "cold house for Catholics", to lift a phrase from David Trimble's Nobel Prize speech.

But it's equally true that trying to sort out these issues in the hothouse atmosphere of a cup final is doomed to failure.

There wasn't enough time to have a rational discussion about the various issues raised.

That needs to be done out of season, out of competition, with due respect for positions on both sides. Because that didn't happen, bad feeling escalated and the situation became politicised.

Nationalist politicians tweeted their support for Cliftonville's protest; DUP MLA Carla Lockhart responded that they "got what their disrespect deserved" by being beaten in the game.

This is schoolyard stuff, but it can have dangerous real-life consequences. All because of a song. Of course, those who support playing God Save The Queen at football matches in Northern Ireland will point out that, if their anthem is divisive, the GAA should stop playing The Soldier's Song before matches, too - and they do have a point.

That doesn't create a welcoming atmosphere for members of the Protestant unionist community, who've repeatedly been urged to drop any lingering hostility to Gaelic games and get involved. The official message of friendship is at odds with the climate of flag-waving partisanship in the GAA.

It's another of the aspects of reconciliation which republicans, with their tails up at recent demographic predictions, have not considered.

If there is ever to be a united Ireland, there'd surely have to be a new anthem and a new flag to which all the people on the island could show loyalty, because unionists are never going to well up with pride at a tune that contains lyrics such as, "Soldiers are we, whose lives are pledged to Ireland". Nor that bit about being "children of a fighting race, that never yet has known disgrace". There's been plenty of disgrace committed under that banner, as there has been under the red, white and blue of the Union flag. That's what makes emblems problematic.

All that, though, is a debate for the future.

What the GAA does in its grounds is also not something that we in Northern Ireland can influence alone. Too many other interests are involved.

Football in Northern Ireland is different.

We have total control over what happens here. A resolution only requires agreement between people of goodwill on the ground and, in that respect, the Irish FA surely should be more pro-active when it comes to promoting a cross-community spirit.

Healthy rivalry between supporters of different clubs is not a bad thing, it can add to the enjoyment of fixtures, but it can spill over into ugliness.

Add a disputed national identity into the mix and the potential for trouble only multiplies. Why take the risk?

The IFA has made magnanimous gestures before, when it dropped the national anthem for the 2013 cup final in order, in its own words, to foster a "politically neutral environment".

Having a neutral anthem that everyone can sing without rancour would jostle that process along enormously.

The rugby team has adopted Ireland's Call. It may be an insipid, uninspiring piece of music that everybody hates in equal measure, but it takes the heat out of those moments before a big match.

Rugby was forced into doing something because the team plays under an all-Ireland banner. They did at least deal with it in a way that - without wanting to sound like one of those wishy-washy Thought For The Day pep talks on Good Morning Ulster - builds bridges rather than walls.

The hockey and cricket teams have followed suit.

It is a bit of an anachronism that Catholics are asked to get behind Northern Ireland when they qualify for major tournaments, such as the Euros in 2016, despite still lining up before the matches to the same anthem as England.

Everyone should support Northern Ireland when they take to the field and most people (except for a few woolly backs in south Armagh) are happy to do so, so why make it more difficult for one group of fans?

Scotland and Wales have their own anthems. They don't sing God Save The Queen.

That doesn't make them any less British. It simply strengthens their regional identity.

A collective pride in Northern Irishness should be the goal - not scoring sectarian points.

When it comes to sport, flags and emblems are a sideshow, anyway.

It's results that ultimately matter.

What will have spoiled the day for Cliftonville is that they lost 3-1 to Coleraine, not that they had to listen to a bunch of tone-deaf men in replica shirts pretending to remember all the words to God Save The Queen.

Belfast Telegraph

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