Davy Millar looks at examples of football becoming caught up in the politics of Northern Ireland
There are those who will argue that there should be a firm demarcation line between the worlds of sport and politics. They believe that the average altruistic politico is ill-prepared to survive contact with the rampant megalomania, corruption, cynicism, exploitation and downright thuggery of modern professional sport. Or have I got it the wrong way round? It’s hard to tell these days.
The willingness of some British politicians to accommodate Wimbledon FC in their stated desire to move to Belfast is the latest in a series of events in Northern Ireland which have blurred the boundaries to no one’s advantage, least of all that of football clubs in the province.
First came the Omagh bombing. This was the worst single atrocity of the Troubles, and was condemned even by those who would have ordinarily justified such actions, yet one sporting organisation felt entitled to hinder fund raising attempts to compensate the victims.
The Gaelic Athletic Association refused permission for Omagh’s Gaelic stadium to be used by Omagh FC in staging money-spinning friendlies against top English and Scottish clubs. If St Enda’s Gaelic club fail to overturn the GAA’s ruling those matches will now take place at the football club’s 5,000-capacity St Julian’s Road ground, where the restricted attendances will provide only a fraction of what would have been substantial proceeds.
The GAA insist that “foreign” sports cannot take place on Gaelic turf, though exceptions can be made when two NFL clubs want to stage an American football match in Dublin and provide their hosts with a hefty cheque for the privilege. In truth, the “foreign” epithet only applies to sports which the GAA deem English, thus protecting the innocence of Irish youth being tainted by the ways of the hated Saxon oppressor.
Then there was the latest sad chapter in the troubled history of Donegal Celtic. That much-maligned West Belfast club had reached the semi-finals of the most prestigious competition for non-League sides here, only to be drawn against the RUC. Initial optimism that the game would go ahead quickly evaporated as various republican groups, led by Sinn Fein, began to pressure the club to withdraw from the cup rather than face the police team.
Sinn Fein are demanding the RUC’s abolition as an essential part of the peace process. Their strategy has been to prevent any contact between the nationalist community and the police at any level, even down to picketing local Catholic primary schools which have invited the RUC to give road safety lectures to their pupils. Therefore the idea of a football team from the republican heartland of West Belfast playing a match against the police side was anathema to republican activists, who believed such a game would lend the force an aura of legitimacy.
When club members voted to go ahead with the semi-final, the pressure on them increased. Players and officials were visited at their homes by SF activists and warned of the likely consequences for both themselves and the club premises if they did not withdraw. Given SF’s uncanny ability to predict future violence, the clubs had little option but to comply, but even that wasn’t enough for some people – Celtic then had to issue a statement denying they had been intimidated into withdrawing.
So far, so bad; sports people abusing politics and politicians abusing sport, with both sets of perpetrators making themselves the objects of derision, but both getting their own way. Whether or not a third group also manages to force through their plans is likely to prove more interesting but just as alarming.
There seem to be two reasons why Mo Mowlam and a small clique within the Labour Party are prepared to facilitate Wimbledon should they decide they want to move to Belfast. The main frivolous excuse is that, as the rest of Belfast blossoms with scores of impressive building projects, there is one patch of reclaimed land on the north shore of Belfast Lough which apparently gives a bad impression to visitors, whether they are sailing past on the ferry or circling overhead as their pilot searches for the City airport.
One of Mowlam’s junior ministers, Lord Dubs (formerly Alf Dubs, the MP for Battersea until 1987), suggests that this land would look much better if a brand new stadium were built on it and so, despite the area being worth about £1 million, the government are prepared to give it away to Wimbledon. This, of course, does not clash with their refusal to help fund the project – actually giving money to a commercial venture would be totally wrong, a gross abuse of government money.
The second reason is that the arrival of Wimbledon/Belfast Utd would give a boost to the peace process by enabling Protestants and Catholics to unite behind a single cause. It could work. Every visit of Manchester United would see the stadium filled with their fans and similar welcomes would await Arsenal, Tottenham, Leeds and Liverpool.
Then, as always happens with these unifying causes, the match finishes and the crowd goes home to their separate areas to start plotting again. There are still some things more important than football.
The prospect of those glamour clubs playing regular League fixtures in Belfast is the reason why opinion polls are delivering high approval ratings for the project – not because 68 per cent of those interviewed want to see Wimbledon. Every football fan here has already picked their favourite English club, most following one of the five mentioned above, and many spend a small fortune each year going to watch their chosen team. Even the celebrity chosen to publicise the campaign, Eamonn Holmes, is a Man Utd fan and therefore unlikely to ever become a Belfast United regular.
Of course, the business consortium behind the proposal is free to campaign for whatever it wishes, but it should not be getting hand-outs from the state. The £1 million the new club would effectively be receiving from the government may not seem much in Premiership terms, but it would be enough to ensure the survival of several Irish League sides, teams which could be forced to fold if Wimbledon come to Belfast. For the local clubs, the prospect of closing down is hard enough to take without the sight of Wimbledon being paid to come over to administer the last rites.
I know Mo Mowlam means well, that she wants to help us overcome our differences and not, like the other groups mentioned, to maintain them. Sadly, she appears to share their belief that sport is there to be used for political ends. It is not too late for her to change her mind on this, to withdraw the offer of free land for a stadium and leave Wimbledon to their own devices. It’s not too late for her to decide that this project isn’t really any of her business.
From WSC 144 February 1999. What was happening this month