The hounding of Neil Lennon brought the issue of sectarianism back into the spotlight. As Davy Millar writes, recent initiatives to revive the Irish League will fail unless this underlying problem is addressed.

Its not been a bad season for the Irish League so far. Our clubs still suffer from a shortage of fans, a lack of money, administrative cock-ups and an all-pervading sense of despair but we’re used to all that sort of thing by now. The good news is that everybody agrees we’re in a mess and they’ve all promised to think really hard about how to get out of it. Out of the mess, that is; Glentoran’s Rory Hamill misunderstood that bit and promptly failed his UEFA Cup drug test.

The new realism is a product of the peace process, which has restricted the previously all-year-round sport of massive civil unrest to a few weeks each summer. Under-achievers in Northern Ireland have been stripped of their main excuse for failure and the local media, deprived of their main source of news for the past 30 years, are looking for soft targets to fill up their pages and airtime. They don’t come much softer than the Irish League, which got such a sustained kicking during 2000 that even the dimmest official realised action was needed.

Another product of the peace process was the Nor­thern Ireland Assembly, a chance for local politicians to lead the way to a new prosperous Ulster. They began by voting themselves a large pay-rise (prosperity has to start somewhere) but have since turned their attention to the electorate. Michael McGimpsey, the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, set up a task force to investigate ways of revitalising the local game and that body got an earful from unhappy fans at a series of public meetings. More importantly, he backed up his interest with an unusual commodity – hard cash. The Safe Sports Grounds Programme has provided funds for clubs to improve their stadiums, many of which are so dilapidated they are often blamed for putting off potential supporters. The £4 million is welcome but, considering it has to be shared with some Gaelic and rugby grounds, it is a long way from sufficient.

The scale of the problem was illustrated last year when a safety official from England said that of the six League clubs he visited here, four had grounds which were only fit for immediate closure and one was a borderline pass. In defence of the clubs, it has to be said that they have had a raw deal when it comes to funding.

The Football Trust has helped clubs in the rest of the UK but seems to be­lieve the Irish League is too remote and unimportant, a view shared by successive British governments, which is probably why the only significant intervention was the attempt to kill off local football by importing Wimbledon. Now, backed by politicians with a modicum of power and an interest in their survival, the League can hope that their case will carry more weight in future.

The missing fans won’t return just because we’ve got comfier stadiums. In­deed, to judge by the suc­cess of the Ulster rugby side, the most basic am­enities do not necessarily preclude sell-out crowds. The proposed improvements will help but it is the atmosphere sur­rounding too many of our games which is far more damaging to football. Ulster’s success, and that of the Belfast Giants ice hockey team, shows that people are only too happy to support local sport but only if they feel safe and don’t have to put up with incessant sectarian songs ringing in their ears.

The issue broke into the mainland British media thanks to the treatment handed out to Neil Lennon when he played for Northern Ireland against Norway at the end of February, but low-level man­ifestations of the same attitudes are a constant thread in the pro­vince’s football. There is one Irish League chairman who says he would quite happily dispense with the support of 50 per cent of his team’s supporters who, he feels, are preventing his club from moving forward.

He is frustrated at being told by so many people that they will not come to his ground, let alone bring their children, because they don’t want to listen to the same old, sick songs while keeping a wary eye on the nearest set of thugs. The trouble is that, like their rivals, his club are in a financially perilous state and can’t afford the loss of any more fans, no matter how badly they behave. He also points out that international crowds had begun to rise again in the absence of that offensive soundtrack, before the Lennon issue erupted with such depressing implications for the province’s image, not to mention the Celtic player’s own peace of mind.

The Irish League will never be anything but a min­now on the European stage, but it doesn’t have to continue to fail on local terms. Administrators, the clubs and the fans who turned up at those task force meetings all believe that the game can have a future and have made a string of sensible suggestions; better grounds, fewer tournaments, increased community work from the clubs, cut-price family tickets, an IFA/ Irish League merger, and a total overhaul of the media, PR and marketing side of the game. Most of them understand, however, that if the wider public don’t feel safe from violence or sectarianism, all the other pro­posals will be in vain.

One of a series of recent reports on the future of Northern Ireland highlighted the benefits of sport and the arts to a community. The intrinsic nature of both stimulates interest, engagement and involvement which enhance the quality of life for people living in that area. This, in turn, makes the region more attractive to outsiders and helps to attract both tourism and inward investment. Grants to either sphere, often seen as wasted money by governments, actually repay themselves many times over. Perhaps a mainstream sport, particularly one which pledged to confront actively public displays of sectarianism, would be a worthy recipient of assistance. At the very least, the IFA and Irish League could wake up and ask.

From WSC 170 April 2001. What was happening this month

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