Like many other football fans, I have very fond memories of past international matches at Windsor Park. This Glens fan was there on the night when Northern Ireland beat Israel 1-0 to qualify for the 1982 World Cup finals, I was there when Ian Stewart scored that goal to beat the Germans, and there on many other occasions to see Northern Ireland play the best in Europe.
However, like the majority of decent fans, I left Windsor Park after the last match against Norway with feelings of anger, despondency and frustration. That anger was caused by a small, yet significant, minority of so-called fans who booed Neil Lennon every time he kicked the ball simply because he had chosen to play for Celtic.
That booing was augmented by various renditions of ‘The Sash’, ‘The Billy Boys’, and chants of “We’ve Got a Provo on our Team’ and ‘We Hate Fenians’. Like many other fans sickened by the bigots, I left the game early, refusing to be associated with their sectarian abuse and intolerance.
Yet again the reputation of Northern Ireland football had been dragged through the mud by a minority of moronic thugs, and the job of improving the image of the local game across all sections of our community was made all the more difficult. The game demonstrated once and for all that sectarianism is endemic in local football and that it is slowly destroying it.
Realising this some years ago, Alliance has consistently called for tougher penalties for offending fans. We welcomed the IFA’s ‘Give Sectarianism the Boot’ campaign but realised that the thugs behind this kind of behaviour do not respond to positive messages on scoreboards or advertising hoardings; the only way to deal with them is to remove them from the grounds permanently.
In February 2000, Alliance MLA, Kieran McCarthy, asked the Minister to introduce the Football Offences Act 1991 to Northern Ireland and amend it to include sectarian abuse. The Act makes racist and abusive chanting a criminal offence and can result in the ejection, prosecution and banning of those involved. It was used most recently at Saturday’s match at Bradford when four Manchester City fans were arrested and charged for allegedly chanting racist abuse.
Since the match, Alliance has renewed calls for tough action and these have been supported by the IFA, who recognise that they are limited in the action they can take. Despite the introduction of their Code of Conduct in time for Northern Ireland’s weekend international, it is only through legislation that a tougher stance can be enforced.
However, yet again Mr McGimpsey has offered only words of condemnation and has said that he will not even consider supporting the extension of the Act until the Irish League Task Force reports in the Autumn. Given that the legislation will then take a further 18 months to be passed, the Act is unlikely to be in force here until the summer of 2003; if he had acted when Alliance first brought up the issue the legislation could have been in place this summer.
The Alliance message to the Minister is clear – stop dithering, stop procrastinating – extend and amend the Act now. Only a tough line will silence the bigots.
Last month’s events also re-ignited the debate about the suitability of Windsor Park to stage international football. Alliance believes that Windsor Park is not a suitably neutral venue for international matches, due to both its location and the long history of sectarian partisanship associated with the ground. Alliance would, therefore, like to see a new national stadium in a neutral venue with facilities suitable for the 21st Century and where major football, rugby and GAA fixtures could be played.
By building a new national venue for football, we believe that it will be easier to attract support from across the community. The common focus of a shared stadium, and the inclusive nature of such a venture, would make the three main spectator sports more accessible to a non-traditional fan-base and would allow trust and co-operation between sports to develop for the benefit of all. Of course, for this to happen the GAA would have to change their rules to allow other sports to be played on their pitches.
That brings me to another point – football is not the only sport affected by sectarianism. Over the last fortnight, Nationalist politicians have quite rightly bemoaned the treatment of Neil Lennon and in recent days the SDLP have even put down a question on the Football Offences Act – only 14 months after Alliance and despite the fact that their Programme for Government failed to even mention sectarianism in sport.
It is disappointing that these same politicians have not been so vocal in their calls for the GAA to scrap Rule 21, which excludes members of the security forces from playing that sport and in doing so has alienated much of the Protestant community.
Alliance, however, has a consistent policy – people should be encouraged to participate in their chosen sport regardless of their religious or political beliefs.
In conclusion, as someone who passionately wants to see a positive future for local football and sport in general, I would encourage all fans to unite behind Neil Lennon on Saturday so that we can put this dreadful episode behind us. The IFA and the fans are entitled to expect that the Government does all in its power to assist them. It is therefore time for the Minister to support the extension of the Football Offences Act 1991 to Northern Ireland so that we can all give the bigots the boot for good.