The people of Northern Ireland, in my own long experience, take unkindly to advice from outside This Wee Country Of Theirs.
It is true that many outsiders have historically fallen into all sorts of traps of assumption. One spectacularly false belief is that bigotry runs in only one direction.
In my efforts to understand a part of the world for which I have always had great affection, even in dark times of tragedy and hatred, I have tried with whatever success to be even-handed and see the issues from different standpoints.
As a reporter, I have covered miscarriages of justice that have left Catholics wrongly imprisoned, but also the appalling acts committed in the name of republicanism. I have made no distinctions of right and wrong when writing about tit-for-tat sectarian bloodshed.
A massacre of Catholic innocents at Greysteel is no more and no less savage and unjust than a massacre of Protestant innocents at Frizzel’s fish and chip shop on the Shankill Road, or of anyone who happens to be around in Dublin or Omagh city centres.
But over the years, I have witnessed more outward sign of basic prejudice on the part of loyalists than nationalists. Some of the reaction to James McClean’s choice of the Republic of Ireland and not Northern Ireland as his international team seems to betray such prejudice. Tribalism does not offer the complete answer, however; it is right to acknowledge the feelings of betrayal that McClean, having benefited from association with the NI set-up as a junior, should now beetle off to play for another country.
But there is also a degree of naivety at play.
Keith Gillespie, a player who served Northern Ireland well, is quoted by the Belfast Telegraph as being unable to fathom how someone can attempt to justify such a switch by claiming the NI international operation is a bastion of anti-Catholicism.
In almost the same breath, the BelTel presents Gillespie as a man who ”fully understands the vicissitudes of politics on this divided island — and can therefore recognise the right of someone to make a choice that mirrors their aspirations and allegiances”.
There you have it. If you recognise that right, then you must recognise with all the reluctance you wish that McClean was acting correctly, in accordance with conscience, in wanting to pull on the Republic of Ireland shirt. The French feel the same sense of dismay when homegrown players, young men born in France but of Maghrebin or subSaharan family origin, later opt to play for the African countries of their parents. I don’t even like to see players nurtured at the Sunderland Academy go on to make names for themselves at other clubs.
You need to know Northern Ireland but not necessarily to take sides in order to understand the following McClean statement about his feelings of discomfort at playing for the province at junior level:
I think any Catholic would be lying if they said they did feel at home, seeing all those Union Jacks and hearing the songs and the chants. I didn’t feel part of it…
Gillespie is reportedly ”of the firm belief that if you’re born in Northern Ireland you should not have the option of playing for the Republic”. For him, McClean ”had no intention of ever playing for the Northern Ireland senior team and he’s made that clear — but he used the Northern Ireland system to get into a position where he could defect to the Republic”.
You look at some of our greatest and most capped players who are Catholic — people like Pat Jennings, Mal Donaghy, Martin O’Neill and Gerry Armstrong. They are all hugely popular people in Northern Ireland.
I respect Gillespie’s view but consider he is wrong. Even he goes on to admit that sectarianism has not been completely eradicated from Northern Ireland football, arguing that despite there being ”a few idiots”, tremendous work has been done by both the Irish FA and the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs to cut it out.
A ”few idiots”? Maybe; I have little personal knowledge of what goes on at NI internationals. I would not want to run out at Windsor Park to play for such idiots, even if relatively few in number. But then, nor would I expect the son of a victim of IRA terrorism to take much pleasure running out at Celtic Park to the sound of a few of their idiots singing the Provos’ praises.
McClean has made his selection. Disappointment is natural but that selection deserves respect.
* See the full report of Keith Gillespie’s comments at