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Why unionists only have eyes for Rangers

You could call them Unionists United. For in the fractured world of Protestantism and loyalism, the cause of Rangers football club is probably the only thing that can bring together the vast majority of the majority community in Northern Ireland.

They go to different churches, they vote for different political parties, they walk with different Orange lodges - both mainstream and independent - they support different Irish and English football teams and even the paramilitary allegiances are different.

But as far as Scottish football goes, most Protestants, unionists, loyalists - call them what you will - only have eyes for Ibrox.

There are the odd exceptions - one east Belfast Rangers fan insists he has at least six Protestant friends who support Celtic. Quietly, one assumes.

The thousands of Rangers fans who make their regular pilgrimages to Glasgow aren't, of course, renowned for their moderation - in alcohol consumption, or anything else - but, for them, their passion for Rangers is all about identity.

On Wednesday, 350 Rangers' diehards gathered in east Belfast for the launch of a local blueprint to save the club, which has gone into administration owing millions of pounds.

A whip-round from fans and supporters clubs on the night raised £4,000 for a Rangers fighting fund.

And any doubts over how seriously they were taking the crisis were dispelled by the orders to close the bar during the meeting.

As the Queen peered down from her frame on the wall of the Harland and Wolff Welders' club, there was also no mistaking the hurt and the bewilderment of the supporters.

They included Clifford Healy, father of Rangers and Northern Ireland striker David, who, like the rest of his footballing colleagues, has taken a pay-cut to help stave off the possibility of the Glasgow club going into liquidation.

The Healys are typical of Rangers - and Celtic - fans. For them, it's like father, like son: a Glaswegian generation game.

One of the main movers in the Rangers Till I Die campaign in Northern Ireland is Jim Wilson. The son of a Scot who brought his Ibrox obsession with him when he came to work in the shipyard, Jim now takes his grandsons, aged 16 and four, to Rangers' home games as often as he can.

A number of Wilson's former political allies from the Progressive Unionist Party were at Wednesday's meeting, along with leading figures from other unionist parties, including Gregory Campbell and Danny Kennedy.

Campbell let the meeting into a secret - that a Rangers supporters club set up by MPs at Westminster has been working quietly behind the scenes to help Rangers.

Kennedy says: "By reasons of culture, by ties of blood and by strong sporting connections, it's very clear that the future of Rangers is not just an issue for the people of Scotland, but also in Northern Ireland terms."

Kennedy's brother Billy is vice-chairman of Linfield and he's pledged the club's support for Rangers, who they'll play in a fundraiser.

The clubs have ties going back decades. In the not-so-old days, neither fielded Catholics and even with the demolition of the religious barriers, their supporters are still almost exclusively Protestant.

Rangers most certainly wouldn't do it now, but almost 60 years ago, they tied their red, white and blue flag firmly to the Orange mast when they played a game at Windsor Park to boost a building fund for a lodge in Sandy Row.

Now the boot is on the other foot and Belfast is raising money for Rangers, whom Ulster Unionist MLA Michael Copeland believes are more than just a football club to their supporters. They mightn't admit it, but privately supporters are dreading the visit later this month by Celtic fans, who plan to turn the game into a party to celebrate the winning of the Scottish league championship from Rangers, whose followers are distributing 40,000 Union flags before the game.

Last October, Ibrox fans were mocking Celtic, who were 10 points behind them in the title race. They sent out texts that the trophy, frequently delivered by helicopter on the last decisive day of the season, would be brought to Ibrox by Santa's sleigh at Christmas.

Rangers fans and officials of the fighting fund aren't laughing now after their spectacular fall from grace and from the top of the league table. "Yes, the Celtic fans can say our blue noses are out of joint. But this half of the Old Firm will be back in business," says one Rangers fanatic.

Former Rangers star Sandy Jardine, who was in Belfast this week, says even pensioners are giving the club money and he adds: "We won't go under."

Brave words for a man standing in a club associated with Harland and Wolff in the Titanic year.

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