About a decade ago, a solicitor friend from West Belfast invited me to an Old Firm game at Parkhead. Before kick off we drank in a bar filled with Celtic fans, who stood on tables and chairs chanting and singing provo songs. It was the first time I had ever seen a television set inside a protective wire cage. Before kick off, the Rangers fans, hemmed into a small section of the stand and heavily protected by police, broke into “The Billy Boys”. When they got to the bit about being “up to our knees in fenian blood” a man in his 50s sitting beside me wearing a Celtic jersey suddenly exploded. “Give me a flamethrower and I’ll burn those orange b******s where they stand” he roared, eyes bulging. When he shouted this, the Celtic supporters in our section rose to a man and joined him, hurling abuse. It was scary stuff. I could have believed that if someone had actually produced a flamethrower, that ordinary looking middle-aged man might just have made good on his threat.
When Sunderland’s James McClean was threatened last week on twitter that he would be shot for his treachery in declaring for the Republic rather than the North, the politicians made all the right sounds. Gregory Campbell, the DUP MP, once the most firebrand of loyalist politicians, described the threats as “reprehensible”, condemning them outright. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (fresh from his first ever visit to Windsor Park in March) followed suit, using suitably moderate language. Two years ago, I was sitting beside Martin at a Derry match in Celtic Park, when he turned to me and showed me a text message from DUP First Minister Peter Robinson which read: “Go on the Blues! You’ll never catch us now.” Chelsea had just won a vital premiership game, leaving Martin’s Red Devils trailing in their wake. “He’ll torture me now,” said McGuinness, laughing. All of these symbols of a new non-sectarian society are important. But when you scratch the surface, it is still a deeply segregated.
The GAA in Ulster is doing its bit. Four years ago, Martin McAleese arranged a meeting between loyalist commanders and high ranking members of the Ulster Council in the interests of breaking down barriers. The summit took place in a community centre on the Shankill Road. After a presentation by Danny Murphy which was well received, Ryan Feeney, Danny’s right hand man, was sharing some tea and crumpets with a well known loyalist leader.
“Great to have you here,” he said.
“Amazing,” said Ryan, “What would have happened if we’d come here ten years ago?”
“We’d have shot you and kidnapped McAleese.”
Before the GAA men left, they had arranged to bring the group to the upcoming All-Ireland hurling semi-final. Four weeks later, a coach pulled up at the centre in Belfast and 50 loyalists from Tigers Bay, the Shankill and Lurgan trooped on board to be greeted by Ryan. One of them was wearing a Dublin jersey.
“You like it?” he said to Feeney, “Up the Dubs!”
After the game, in the splendid surrounds of the VIP suite of the Hogan Stand, Ryan asked the leader of the group what his overall thoughts on the experience were.
“We need a protestant GAA.”
Unfortunately, that will take a while. In the meantime, if you confront the reality of sectarianism here, you had better brace yourself. Neil Lennon, born and bred in Lurgan - itself a deeply sectarian town - has been beaten up twice in Glasgow, the second attack resulting in him being knocked unconscious by two Rangers’ supporters, both of whom were sent to prison for two years. The key eye-witness at that trial told the court the incident started when the two men called Lennon a “Ginger Celtic c*** ” and advanced towards him, at which point Neil stood his ground and “raised his middle finger”. Lennon has continued to raise his middle finger. In turn, the sectarian attacks have carried on. Eight weeks ago, two Rangers fans were convicted at Glasgow Sheriff’s Court of posting hoax bombs to Lennon and two other prominent backers of Celtic FC. Lennon’s Northern Ireland career ended when he was hounded out by death threats from Billy Wright’s mid-Ulster Loyalist Volunteer Force, because he said in a newspaper interview that he would love to play for an All-Ireland team.
James McClean also calls a spade a spade. Last week, talking about his brief spell with Northern Ireland under 21s, he said “I never felt part of the squad. And I think any Catholic player, if they said they did, I’d probably call them a liar. It’s probably strong words to say but I felt we weren’t wanted. As a Catholic as well, its hard to stand for that national anthem and see all the flags and the chants. You don’t feel part of that, especially me, from where I grew up.”
When he described his joy at being selected for Ireland (“I just lay in bed and let out a big roar. Finally I’ve done it”) he got a vicious response: “F*** up you fenian b*****d I’ll make sure you get shot when you set foot back in God’s country,” tweeted one enraged Northerner, summing up the reaction of one section of the community.
McClean’s response was rash. “Love the dogs’ abuse am gettin off shocked N.I fans, just worry about watchin ur own country at the euros...”
This sent the Billy Boys into overdrive: “u deserve to be shot for that comment!! You’re playing for Ireland and not the country you were born in.”
His manager at Sunderland Martin O’Neill, deeply concerned at McClean’s immature reaction and worried about the way in which he was exposing himself, stepped in and gagged the boy, before he talked himself into the sort of trouble that Neil Lennon lives with on a daily basis. Security patrols, a personal protection unit, reinforced glass. Who wants to live like a Colombian prosecutor just because they call it as it is.
The reality is that the two cultures remain firmly segregated and sectarianism is rife. An invisible wall separates the two communities’ schools, sports, religions and social lives. The sooner the GAA spreads into the Shankill, Tigers Bay and Lurgan, the sooner we’ll have a civilised society.