Conrad Thomas explains how incidents surrounding Portadown v Cliftonville led to questions about the nature of sectarinism within football in Northern Ireland
In September, Cliftonville were due to play their North Belfast rivals Crusaders in a cup semi-final. This was to be played at a neutral venue, The Oval, in predominantly Protestant East Belfast. The majority of Cliftonville fans are Catholic but we have happily travelled to The Oval on many occasions to watch our team play Glentoran. The route that we take to the ground is strictly decided upon by the police.
That night police stopped the Cliftonville supporters buses en route to the ground. We were told that a local residents group were staging an allegedly spontaneous demonstration in protest against our presence in their area. They claimed that we were guilty of vandalism and sectarian abuse. Rather than remove the protesters the RUC decided not to allow our fans to go any further. There was an angry stand off. Devoid of any support, we lost 4-0.
Whilst the incident was condemned in most quarters, some local politicians suggested that if issues were not resolved, Cliftonville may have to withdraw from the league. One Unionist politician, Jim Rodgers even had the audacity to say that there were Sinn Fein activists among the Cliftonville support. David Chick, the Glentoran chairman, said that he sympathised with the residents’ views. He had never complained about our many previous visits.
Prohibitive restrictions on tickets and numbers were placed on Cliftonville’s next visit to The Oval, despite our club having a very large away support by Irish League standards. In between these two games, Glentoran visited Cliftonville’s ground, Solitude, to play a league match. Their supporters were encouraged and welcomed.
In Portadown, a mob waving placards baring the slogan ‘No Republican Scum in Mid Ulster’ prevented Cliftonville supporters getting to the ground. Buses were attacked and the windows were smashed, as the RUC confirmed. Only evasive action from the bus driver saved the loss of life. Our players, fearing for the safety of their families, refused to reappear after half-time and the match was abandoned. Again, the media begged the question as to whether Cliftonville would have to leave the League, despite our supporters doing nothing wrong.
Cliftonville supporters are being used as innocent pawns in a much wider game. The actions taken by some members of the Loyalist community are a blatant attempt to link the rights of travelling football supporters to political issues. Each summer Northern Ireland politics is dominated by the ‘marching issue’, whereby residents of some Catholic areas have sought to be consulted on the size and scale of what they perceive to be sectarian marches proceeding through their areas. The protesters are trying to directly link this issue, the polemics of which have nothing to do with football, to the rights of Cliftonville fans.
This is a complete red herring. Firstly, none of the three main Cliftonville supporters clubs have ever been approached by residents of areas near to away grounds to express their concerns. Secondly, the protests are not spontaneous. As the placards from last Saturday show, this is a highly-organized action to try and forcibly remove Cliftonville from the league.
However, the most worrying thing is that it is being seen as our problem when surely it is up to individual clubs to guarantee the safety of away supporters. There is a precedent: after an incident in the early seventies when our ground was being used as a neutral venue for a cup match and a Linfield supporter was injured close by, a police decision was taken that Cliftonville would have to play future home games against Linfield at their Windsor Park ground. The reason given for this decision was to guarantee the safety of Linfield fans. Will we be given the same opportunity?
In the past Cliftonville matches have been at the centre of some misbehaviour which our board (the majority of whom are Protestant) and supporters’ clubs have publicly and consistently condemned. This time, though, we are being made to pay the price for the actions of others.
The fans of other clubs agree that this should not be allowed to happen. A survey in the Belfast Telegraph showed that 79% of supporters wanted Cliftonville to remain in the League. Peter Shirlow, a lifelong fan of Linfield, told me of the “genuine anger in the stands at Windsor” when news of the Portadown incident filtered through. Paul Donnelly, a Glentoran fan said that it was “organized sectarianism, being exploited by some Unionist politicians. Cliftonville and their fans have a positive role too play in the Irish League. They should be respected and encouraged.”
Politicians have a lot to answer for, we do not. Branding us as ‘activists’ only adds to the demonising of Cliftonville fans that will eventually lead to one of us being killed. Instead of our being forced out of the league, we should be encouraged and supported by the Irish Football Association, other clubs and the Irish League (who have maintained a disappointing silence). As Dr Alan Bairner, an expert on sport and society at the University of Ulster points out, “People involved in Northern Ireland sport have complained about the adverse impact of the political situation on their activities but the time has come for them to recognize their own responsibilities and take a positive approach to sectarianism.” Cliftonville have tried their best, others must now follow suit.
From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month