Should Northern Ireland have an alternative to ‘God Save The Queen’ for international football matches? Yes, undoubtedly yes.
But before you start reaching for the nearest GAWA scarf to throttle me with, two things:
1. Ulster rugby legend Rory Best, whom no one would mistake for a rabid republican, agrees that the playing of the UK national anthem prior to games is “not very inclusive”.
2. I cried my eyes out with pride (okay, I’d had a few sherbets) when ‘God Save the Queen’ got piped around the Olympic Stadium after Jessica Ennis was presented with the heptathlon gold on Super Saturday, 2012.
So let’s park the political tribalism to one side for a moment, okay?
You know why we’re back talking about this; that ITV documentary ‘Game of Two Halves’, where former Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill said he believed the anthem was responsible for putting his team at a disadvantage.
He felt it alienated players from a nationalist background, and he’s right.
If this was Wales or Scotland, both of whom gave up on ‘God Save The Queen’ decades ago, it wouldn’t even be a debate.
The clansmen have always loathed the “English anthem”, not least because of the “rebellious Scots to crush” lyric written in tribute to Field Marshal George Wade, head honcho of George II’s Hanoverian forces.
Ye wouldnae call that inclusive, would ye?
It was dropped in favour of ‘Flower of Scotland’ in the 1990s, while the Welsh replaced it with Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau even earlier, following widespread jeering prior to a rugby match at Cardiff Arms Park in 1973.
Earlier this year the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, suggested that the different nations of the UK should sing their own individual anthems when they play each other in sporting events.
“When pitched against each other we could belt out our English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish anthems,” he said, after Euro 2020 sparked some pearl-clutching about English patriotism.
The Most Reverend Cottrell also suggested ‘God Save The Queen’ should be sung after those individual anthems, and I couldn’t agree less with that.
Two anthems? Nah.
On this side of the Irish Sea, meanwhile, football agent Gerry Carlile proposed that both the UK anthem and Amhrán na bhFiann should be considered as an option; in the interests of inclusivity, you understand.
Really, Gerry? It would have precisely the opposite effect.
At Windsor Park, you’d have the first anthem lauded and the second one roundly jeered.
Why would Northern Ireland fans, the vast majority of whom are unionists, want to hear ‘The Soldier’s Song’ at their national stadium?
An online poll, conducted by this newspaper last week, revealed that 68% of readers who took part thought the status quo should remain.
Veteran DUP politician and GAWA diehard Jim Wells, meanwhile, claimed that if Northern Ireland fans were polled, 99% of them would want things to stay just as they are.
This issue, however, is more about players than supporters.
It isn’t the fans who are standing there in the middle of the pitch, with a TV camera trained on them, looking self-conscious and uncomfortable.
Will the fans notice that Bogside native Seamus isn’t belting out ‘God Save The Queen’ with the same gusto as Shankill-born Billy and conflate this with their commitment to ‘the cause’?
Is Seamus, who normally couldn’t give a hoot about anthems, nevertheless wondering how the ‘folks back home’ will react to this display of Brit pride? Will it end with verbal abuse or a punch-up next time he’s home?
Frankly, it’s embarrassing to see players looking so uncomfortable and half-heartedly lip syncing the words while, a few feet away, opponents such as Italy, with hands on hearts and close to tears, are delivering Fratelli d’Italia as if their very existence depended on it.
It doesn’t mean one team will beat the other, but it’s hard to disagree with O’Neill about a perceived psychological advantage.
Those diehards who moan about “erosion of cultural identity” need to understand that members of the Norn Iron team — itself microcosmic of a post-conflict, inclusive country — are standing to an anthem that doesn’t fully represent that.
When I was growing up here in the troubled 1970s, ‘God Save The Queen’ was played in cinemas and dance halls. Ditto Amhrán na bhFiann, depending on where you were.
(Neither bothered me; I always show respect for whichever anthem is played even though, as an arch anti-bigot, I prefer silence to something divisive or visually branding in a supposedly inclusive space).
The prospect, however, of standing to attention for an anthem that didn’t ‘reflect’ one’s political views was too much for others and, with around five minutes to go, there’d be a stampede for the exit.
As a result, some of the greatest closing scenes in Hollywood cinematic history were missed because of this nonsense.
Imagine leaving before the last few minutes of Carrie, or Casablanca…
So what’s the answer then — no anthem, two, or the hybrid/fudge preferred by the Irish Rugby Football Union with ‘Ireland’s Call’?
The latter might work, although the new ‘anthem’ would have to be a lot better than that dirge they play before international matches at the Aviva.
Derryman Phil Coulter has composed some fine tunes during his illustrious career, but this isn’t one of them; ‘Ireland’s Call’ is like something you’d sing in P1.
I loathe it, although the IRFU’s reasoning for introducing it 26 years ago — that word ‘inclusivity’ again — was laudable.
No, my preference is for following the lead of our celtic cousins and changing our tune.
The actor Jimmy Nesbitt said on last week’s ITV documentary that something by Sir Van Morrison or The Undertones might suffice.
Personally, I’d love the Northern Ireland team to adopt the hymn ‘Be Thou My Vision’, which was composed on this island — and, incidentally, was recorded by Van the Man himself back in 1991.
‘Be Thou My Vision’ actually sounds like a delicious melodic melding of ‘God Save The Queen’ and my favourite, Deutschlandlied.
Have a listen, and imagine it being sung at a heaving Windsor Park. I’m not particularly religious, but it’s awesome!
It wouldn’t denude any ‘Britishness’ either, but would help forge the patriotic tribalism that the beautiful game thrives on.
‘God Save The Queen’ is the national anthem of the United Kingdom; in that regard, it commands and deserves respect.
Don’t forget, however, that the UK having four different football ‘countries’ is an anomaly Fifa would happily scrap.
It’s that ‘one nation, yet four teams’ oddity, for instance, that fuels diehard Catalans’ campaign for the acceptance of a separate team from Spain.
Catalonia is not recognised by Fifa or Uefa as a country, yet Northern Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland are, despite not having the ‘sovereign’ status supposedly required by the governing bodies.
A single, all-British football team would suit them just fine. It might even put paid to the recurring debate over a 276-year-old anthem.