Only A Game? - George Best and the UVF gunman

The Late George Best, who died at the age of 59 in 2005. Photo: PA
The Late George Best, who died at the age of 59 in 2005. Photo: PA

It didn’t matter if you were Catholic or Protestant, if you saw George Best play football you knew he was gifted.

The late Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballer was paradoxically universal. Consider his birthplace; the Cregagh Estate, a place sometimes associated with loyalism and unionism; with this in mind, Best’s ability to transcend prejudice became even more joyous.

In 2010, as part of the European Union’s Peace III programme ‘Tackling the Physical Manifestations of Sectarianism’, Belfast City Council provided £1,500 for materials to be used to replace an old UVF mural in East Belfast with a piece of art that celebrated the world class talent that was George Best.

Earlier this week, work commenced to remove the aforementioned homage to Best and it’s now being replaced with a mural celebrating paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

It doesn’t take a genius to arrive at the conclusion that there’s an immeasurable difference between someone so talented at football as George Best and a group, who according to the University of Ulster’s Sutton database, murdered more people than any other loyalist group during the Troubles.

George Best might not have been a politician who brought peace to the North of Ireland but what he did do was offer hope to young girls and boys growing up in the 1960s and 70s that Belfast, Northern Ireland, the North of Ireland was not the grand total of what the world had to offer.

Best was a shining light in a time that was darker than dark so I am totally befuddled as to why anyone in 2013 would seek to celebrate a group synonymous with division, murder, crime and intimidation at the expense of someone who represented talent, skill and guile.

This is not an excuse to wag the finger of judgement at the Protestants, loyalist or unionists communities. If a mural celebrating republican paramilitaries was to be erected today I would feel the exact same way - disappointed.

Pelé, who many regard as the greatest of all time, once described Best ‘as the greatest player in the world”. My own father, who had the luck of seeing both Best and Pelé play, said as far as he was concerned no one could match Best.

Culture and history are important. Just as the Apprentice Boys are part of Derry’s history, the UVF is part of East Belfast’s but if you ask me, replacing a mural celebrating the magnificent George Best with the effigy of a UVF gunman is a step back to place where the vast majority of people in this part of the world do not want to go.

Sectarianism is still alive and well on both sides of the divide in the North and if anyone needs any reminder of the awful devastation it brings with it they need look no further than the pictures beamed into their living rooms via news programmes every night from Syria.

Yes, sectarianism is part of our history but just because something is part of our history does not mean it is something we should be proud of.

Paramilitary murals send out the wrong messages and if the communities in the North of Ireland are move forward together then surely it would make more sense to celebrate something as universally agreed upon as truly amazing George Best.