Northern Ireland's Greatest Victory Would Be Eliminating Sectarianism at Windsor Park
Northern Ireland are back at a major tournament after a 30-year absence. As well as battling on the pitch, they've also had to fight to unite a divided fanbase.
"I'm thinking of coming to stay for a while in Belfast," I explained. "To do a book of interviews with people whose lives have been affected in some way by the Troubles – perhaps a lot, or only just a little."
"That shouldn't be a problem," she replied. "Just talk to everyone."
From "May the Lord in His Mercy Be Kind to Belfast" by Tony Parker
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Their team may be rank outsiders, but the estimated 30,000 fans travelling to France to cheer on Northern Ireland at Euro 2016 are sure to create a raucous atmosphere that few other countries can match.
"The positivity at the moment is hard to describe," said Belfast-based sports journalist Keith Bailie when asked about his country's first appearance at a major tournament for 30 years. "There are so many people going over to France, and so many people getting behind the team back home."
But the Northern Ireland team and its Windsor Park stadium have not always been associated with such positive feelings. The Troubles – a vicious sectarian conflict that tore the country apart between 1968 and 1998 – claimed over 3,500 victims and tainted all aspects of life, not least the national team.
Traditionally, the Northern Ireland side has been almost exclusively supported by the country's Protestant (often politically Unionist) community, with Catholic (commonly Nationalist in outlook) football fans following the Republic of Ireland.
"It was obvious that, even though the players came from both sides of the community, the fan base certainly didn't. It's not unfair to say Windsor Park was a bit of a "cold house" for nationalists. It wasn't a welcoming place," Bailie told VICE Sports.
Fans – many of whom would wear the shirts of traditional Protestant clubs such as Linfield, or Scotland's Glasgow Rangers instead of the green of Northern Ireland – would sing songs like "The Billy Boys", a traditional Loyalist anthem that includes the line "we're up to our necks in fenian (another word for Catholic, derogatory in this case) blood, surrender or you'll die". They would shout "No Surrender!" between the lines of the national anthem, a reference to the perceived threat that Northern Ireland might be subsumed into a united Ireland.
"I can understand completely why young people from a nationalist background wouldn't go to Windsor or choose to support the Republic of Ireland, because of The Billy Boys and the "No Surrender" chants – the latter of which still continue today, though less vociferously. It doesn't do anyone any favours to pretend it didn't happen," continued Bailie.
Two incidents in particular from those dark days stand out. At the height of the Troubles in 1993, Northern Ireland took on the Republic of Ireland at Windsor Park in the final World Cup qualifying game for both teams. While Northern Ireland were already out of contention, the visiting side needed a point to book its place in the U.S. the following summer. Needless to say the mood – with a heavy police presence, a baying crowd and bouts of racist abuse for the black players in the Republic side – was particularly toxic.
"I have never seen a more hostile atmosphere," said visiting manager Jack Charlton, "not even in Turkey."
Then, in March 2001, Neil Lennon – a combative midfielder who had recently signed for Celtic, a club that commands a large and overwhelmingly Catholic fan base throughout both the north and south of Ireland – was aggressively abused by a section of the home crowd during a friendly with Norway.
Worse was to come. The following year Lennon, who had been due to captain his country in a match at Windsor Park against Cyprus, received a death threat, supposedly from Loyalist paramilitaries. He retired from international football soon after.
The 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement largely brought an end to The Troubles, and offered a chance of a new, more inclusive Northern Ireland. With major societal change on the horizon, the onus was on the Irish Football Association (IFA) to make Windsor Park a more welcoming environment for both Protestant and Catholic fans.
A 1999 friendly against France, then reigning world champions, attracted only 11,000 fans – 3,000 under the Windsor Park capacity at the time. It added to the pressure.
"In the 1980s and '90s you'd hear The Billy Boys and monkey noises, racist chants and sectarian abuse at games. So what should have been a fantastic celebration wasn't a positive experience. I was at the match and I remember being disgusted at some of the stuff was going on," explained Michael Boyd, the IFA's Community Relations Officer.
"The UK Sports Minister (Northern Ireland-born Kate Hoey) was at the game, and she put pressure on the [Northern Ireland] Sports Council and the IFA to address the issue," he continued.
That led to the creation of the Football for All campaign in 2000, a programme to take football into the community and break down social barriers.
"It was about how we engaged with the community. There were targets for girls' and disability football, and also fan engagement, how we could change the atmosphere at international games. That was the first formalised plan to create a fun, safe and inclusive culture at all levels," explained Boyd.
Not that everyone was immediately in favour of such changes, however. When the IFA invited representatives from 12 Northern Ireland supporters' clubs to join an advisory panel, two refused to take part.
"They decided they were dead against it and left... but we had started on a whole new journey," said Boyd. "Four years later, when we beat England at Windsor Park, the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs had 70 member clubs from all over the world, and in 2006 we won an EU and UEFA-endorsed award for the Best Supporters in Europe for our work in transforming the atmosphere."
The IFA programme coincided with fan initiatives to change the culture at Windsor Park. One of those was the "Sea of Green" movement inspired by Gareth Todd, a member of the North of England Northern Ireland Supporters' Club. The campaign encourages fans to wear green Northern Ireland shirts, rather than potentially divisive club tops, at games.
"The idea for Sea of Green came from watching the Dutch fans at Euro 2004. Watching them at a major tournament, and dreaming about being there ourselves, made me think we should do something like that," explained Todd.
Like the vast majority of Northern Ireland fans, Todd believes the team's games should be welcoming to both sides of the community. "I don't care about what the person next to me is," he said. "In fact, the only reason I'll argue with him is if he's not singing!"
Over the years the belief that sectarianism has no place in sport has been taken up by a number of Northern Ireland's biggest sporting names. The brilliance of legendary Manchester United star George Best transcended the religious divide and made him an idol across both communities, while world champion boxer Barry McGuigan became a symbol of reconciliation in the 1980s.
A Catholic born in Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland, McGuigan married a Protestant and fought his biggest fights in Belfast or England. His refusal to wear any national colours or have a national anthem played before his bouts – instead his father sang the traditional Irish ballad "Danny Boy" – united fans from both north and south of the border.
Fittingly, today McGuigan manages another boxing world champion and the man who has assumed his mantle as a cross-community sporting hero: Carl Frampton. Hailing from the working-class Protestant neighbourhood of Tigers' Bay in Belfast, Frampton rejects the idea of sectarian or political divisions in Northern Irish sport.
"Political issues should have no part in any sport," he told VICE Sports. "People have their own beliefs and they're entitled to their own opinions, but sport isn't the place for shoving it down other people's throats."
He is also aware of the redemptive power of sport in a society that was – and in some ways remains – as divided as Northern Ireland. "People talk about how boxing brings people together," he said. "When Barry McGuigan was in his pomp he refused to fight under any flag or any anthem, and he wore the dove of peace on his shorts."
Now Frampton – who sat alongside another world champion, golfer Rory Mcllroy, at a feverish Windsor Park as Northern Ireland clinched their place at Euro 2016 with a win over Greece in October – is confident the fans, and local pride, can help the team surprise a few people in France.
"Kyle Lafferty isn't even getting a game with his club. He has no right to be scoring but he got seven goals in the qualifying campaign, and Conor McLaughlin is playing for Fleetwood Town [in England's third tier]. But when they put the green shirt on it gives them extra determination and pride," he said.
Yet no matter how Lafferty and his teammates perform in their remaining fixtures against Poland and Germany, Northern Irish football's greatest victory may be that it appears to be winning the battle against sectarianism in the Windsor Park stands – and across the country.
According to a 2015 survey titled Social Exclusion in Sport in Northern Ireland, 86% of respondents believed sport was a good way to break down barriers between Protestants and Catholics, while only 6% disagreed with the statement "I would like to see more Catholics support the Northern Ireland team."
For Bailie, it matters little that the majority of Northern Ireland fans continue to be Protestant, or that most Northern Irish Catholics choose to support the Republic. What is more important is that they should be allowed to do so in peace.
"At the Belarus game [the team's last pre-Euro 2016 warm-up, which Northern Ireland won 3-0] there was a party atmosphere, and the songs were about the players, not about politics. It would be wrong to say that [sectarianism] has been eradicated completely, but we've moved away from the really nasty, grubby stuff," he said.
And Northern Ireland's recent success may have an even further-reaching consequence: strengthening the identity of the country itself.
"For a lot of people, supporting Northern Ireland is about their Northern Irishness," said Sea of Green campaign creator Todd. "It's not about their Britishness or their Irishness – it's about the country of Northern Ireland."
Baillie agrees: "The concept of being Northern Irish is a relative modern thing. You would always describe yourself as British or Irish; you didn't think of it as your nationality, it was just where you lived. Northern Ireland's success...gives us an opportunity to forge an identity, to have our own voice," he said.
"It's a new team for a new era."