“I’m not prejudiced but if a c**n moved in next door, I’d move, like most white people would. If my daughter came home with a n****r, I’d go mad. But I’m only being truthful and normal.”
So said Anfield legend Tommy Smith in an interview with author Dave Hill in 1988. At the time, black soccer players like Justin Fashanu and Cyril Regis were running the gauntlet. When they took to the field on Saturdays at 3pm, the stands erupted in gorilla chants. Bananas were thrown onto the field. When West Brom broke new ground by signing Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Bateson, they were promptly christened “The Three Degrees” and amended lyrics from the American group’s hits were sung at every ground. When Regis was selected to play for England, he received a bullet in the post with a note reading: “If you play for us at Wembley, one of these will be shot into your knees, you black b******.” This is racism.
The Armagh County Board last week accusing a Laois player of “racism” after he repeatedly taunted their captain Ciaran McKeever, alledgely branding him “ a British bastard” and shouting “God save the Queen” in his face. British? Affordable housing, safe banks, steady employment and a stable infrastructure? On one view, it’s not much of an insult. And it isn’t racism.
What it is however, is an unpleasant attack on the ethos of the GAA, betraying as it does a certain partitionist mentality. In his book, Big Joe Kernan recalls “ One of the few times as Armagh manager I really lost my temper was in a league game against Laois. One Laois man, who was part of the official party squared up to John Rafferty and called us ‘orange b*****ds’. While I should have laughed at it, I was infuriated. I felt like laying him out with a punch, but managed to restrain myself.”
When Saint Mary’s CBS Grammar school from Belfast played and defeated Doon CBS from Limerick in the colleges All-Ireland ‘B’ hurling semi-final a fortnight ago, the Belfast students complained afterwards that they were subjected to incessant racial abuse by the opposition. The father of one of the lads described in a local newspaper how when he went to celebrate with his son at the final whistle, he was told by one of the Doon players to “Go back to Britain and play your f***ing games up there.”
It is a dirty secret. It is widespread. Yet the authorities pretend it doesn’t exist. The hierarchy was reported to be “furious” at the Armagh Board’s public statement, written by chairman Paul Duggan, a man of the utmost integrity. Yet his complaint, instead of sparking an immediate inquisition, was brushed under the carpet by Croke Park. Within a day, a very bland joint statement was released by the Armagh and Laois boards suggesting that nothing had really happened at all. Meanwhile Armagh’s assistant manager Paul Grimley was pointing out that both the referee and the linesman spoke to the Laois player in question during the game and asked him to refrain. Can you imagine what would happen if the Ulster RFU alleged that Rory Best had been told to “Go back to Britain you orange b******d”during an interprovincial game at Donnybrook? The IRFU would come down on the culprit like a ton of bricks. Yet when the exact same thing happens in our game – and it happens all the time - it is buried.
There has always been a slightly uneasy relationship between elements of the Irish people north and south. After the Derrytresk/Dromid incident a few months ago, Joe Duffy had outraged southern-folk queuing up to vent to their spleen about those dirty northerners. Two “Liveline” shows were devoted to the scandal and still they jammed the switchboards, each new caller more indignant than the last. A man from Kildare summed up the mood when he suggested, “The Northern Ireland crowd should be told to play their football up in Northern Ireland.”
A few days later, petrol was poured on the Dromid fire by the request from Dr Crokes’ Killarney chairman Vincent Casey that their supporters be segregated from Crossmaglen’s for their recent All-Ireland club semi-final. Casey had other demands: “We are also looking for an increased number of stewards at the venue and a bigger Garda presence than last Sunday.” He seemed to think that Crossmaglen’s supporters would be arriving sporting black berets, dark glasses and AK47s. It was of course nonsensical, but again, it illustrated a certain mindset.
Culturally, we are no doubt slightly different. In a way, northern Gaels are more ferocious about our Irishness because we had to fight harder for it. My father, a veteran republican, fluent Irish speaker and traditional musician steeped in all things Gaelic quipped to me during the week, “ Don’t be too hard on the southerners Joe, some of them are almost as Irish as we are.” Our experience explains why we are far more fervent about our province than the other three. When I began working in RTE I was amazed that Cork people didn’t support Kerry when they got out of Munster and Mayo folk didn’t support Galway. Up here, we rally round whoever gets through because we feel we are all in it together. When Tyrone scored their killer goal in the 2005 final against Kerry, a Derry man sitting in the stand jumped up, punched the air in delight and roared, “Come on you Tyrone b******ds!”
In 1998, Michael McGimpsey, the Unionist Minister for Sport gave the IFA a £9million grant for the development of local soccer. The GAA – as was usual then - got nothing. The Ulster Council issued discrimination proceedings and the Department settled out of court for £6.7 million. The gates had been prised open and we have kept them open since. A high ranking official in Croke Park remarked snidely to me some years ago that, “You boys up there are experts at taking the Queen’s shilling.”
In 2009, ex Roscommon goalie Shane Curran, in his weekly column in the “Roscommon Champion” insisted the northern counties’ success had little to do with ability- and more to do with financial assistance from the ‘British’ government. He wrote, “The emergence of the northern counties owes as much to the peace process and the financial assistance afforded to them by her Majesty than any real innovation. Money has played a significant part in the development of Tyrone and to a lesser extent Armagh.” The fact that he felt secure enough to write this in an Irish paper speaks volumes.
When Martin McGuinness announced his presidential campaign, vitriol flowed. Appearing on RTE’s Frontline he was asked by one young woman: “Why are you running in this election, you are not Irish, why do you not go back up north, you belong to a different state, this is the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland”.
When northern teams were winning nothing, coming down to get an annual hammering, we were patronised left, right and centre. “It’s great to see ye keeping the game alive up there.” When we started winning and winning regularly in the 90s and noughties, begrudgery was the new theme. Armagh were robots. Tyrone? Puke footballers. Suddenly, we are British b*****ds who should go back to the north.
Northmen, Southmen, comrades all my arse.