Only A Game? - I’ll join Marty at the terraces in Windsor...

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (left) pictured with First Minister Peter Robinson at the Dr. McKenna Cup final between Derry and Tyrone last month. (Photo: William Cherry).
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (left) pictured with First Minister Peter Robinson at the Dr. McKenna Cup final between Derry and Tyrone last month. (Photo: William Cherry).

The symbols of progression in the North of Ireland came thick and fast last week when DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson attended his first GAA game in Armagh between Derry and Tyrone in the Dr. McKenna Cup final.

The symbolic nature of Peter Robinson’s presence at the Athletics Grounds in Armagh was seen all over the world.

I was at the game. Just before throw-in, word spread that Mr. Robinson was waiting in the wings to take his seat.

Just after Amhrán na bhFiann finished, Mr. Robinson took his seat; I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Sadly Derry lost out but apparently Mr. Robinson enjoyed the game. Will he be back again? Who knows. But the important thing is that a huge gap was bridged.

Just before Christmas I wrote a piece in this column about how and why I think sectarianism still exists in football here. I don’t want to go over all of the points I made but I felt I gave an informed, fair and balanced view. Many disagreed.

I want to state for the record that I am not the precious type. If someone disagrees with me I have no problem, issue of grievance. I’ll respect anyone’s opinion.

However, some of the messages and emails I received from some Northern Ireland supporters was nothing short of offensive and sinister.

Some of what was directed my way could not be reprinted in this column but some Northern Ireland supporters accused me of being a bigot and a group of them suggested that I should be disciplined. Every expletive that’s been invented was used to describe me.

I responded to every message and replied to every email. Some got in touch again whilst others didn’t.

Not all the messages I received were vitriolic; many Northern Ireland supporters emailed to say why they thought I was wrong and pointed out where they felt I was mistaken.

I took all of what was said on board but I still stand over what I wrote. I respect the views of everyone who contacted me but I refute any allegation that I am a bigot; anyone who knows me will tell you that it’s just not so.

In the wake of Peter Robinson’s visit to Armagh last weekend Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said that he would have no problem cheering on Northern Ireland at Windsor Park; I agree with him.

It’ll probably come as a massive shock to a small section of Northern Ireland supporters but I would actually like to see Northern Ireland do well.

Regardless of religion, I think it would be amazing for the island of Ireland if both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were as competitive as one another.

Admittedly, if the Republic of Ireland were to play Northern Ireland I would cheer on the Republic; I am Irish and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

However, I am not ABNI (any body but Northern Ireland) football fans. When Northern Ireland are playing I like to see them win.

They have some decent players and sure what kind of Derry man would I be if I didn’t want to go head up to Windsor Park to cheer on fellow Derry men Paddy McCourt and hopefully, in time, Daniel Lafferty?

In fact, if there was ever an opportunity for me to go along to a Northern Ireland match I certainly would but most of the time their fixtures clash with the Republic of Ireland’s. But who knows what will happen in the future?

The North of Ireland is steadily moving away from the “us and them” culture but there’s still people on both sides of the community who want to remain entrenched in an atmosphere of exclusion and hate. I am not one of them.

If the Northern Ireland football team needed one final win to secure a place at a World Cup or a European Championships, it wouldn’t cost me a thought to show them support.

Who would have thought 30 or 40 years ago that a self-confessed member of the IRA and proud republican like Martin McGuinness would go to Windsor Park to cheer on Northern Ireland?

Who would have thought that Ian Paisley’s right hand man throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, Peter Robinson, would be at a GAA match in 2012?

I’m sure people would have thought you mad if you ever dared make such predictions years ago but the reality of the situation is that it’s happening.

Michael O’Neill is the new manager of Northern Ireland. He’s going all about it the right way and there’s even a suggestion that he’ll be at the Brandywell this season to scout the up and coming talent.

Whilst I still believe that there challenging times ahead there’s no getting away from the progress we have made.

I’ll have my fingers crossed that both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are Brazil bound in 2014!