Football, Fixing and the Troubles in Belfast

On this week of international matches, it seems appropriate to post this column about a visit to Belfast in June, when I watched the England versus Ireland match from both sides of the divide. 

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Of all the football games in the world, this is one of the most symbolically significant: England versus Ireland.   I watched it in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland where next week’s G8 summit will be held.   Any sporting event between these two countries  brings up all kinds of stories – Cromwell’s invasion, the Easter Rebellion, the IRA bombings or the Bloody Sunday massacre by British troops.  A thousand years of violent history all represented on one small square field of grass.

This particular match was, potentially, even worse.   The last time the two countries had played a football game had been in Dublin in 1995.  A large contingent of English fans had sung vicious anti-Irish songs, halted the game and then trashed the stadium.  Eventually, after they had terrified thousands of people, the police had to disperse them with batons and riot gear.

This next match could have been the kick-off to a violent bloodbath.  So I decided to test the new, official view of Northern Ireland: the one promoted by government bureaucrats that says the area has put its troubled past behind it, Catholics and Protestants are happily living side-by-side and everything is peaceful.  I would watch the first half in a Catholic area and then cross the sectarian community lines and watch the second half in Protestant pub.

The official story may say that all is wonderfully calm, but the streets say something different.  The first sense that the authorized version is incomplete came at the Sydenham neighbourhood, steps from the airport.  On every lamppost are flags of the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Protestant paramilitary organization that killed hundreds of civilians during the Troubles.

This is not an exception.   Almost everything in this city – neighbourhoods, shops, pubs – are one religion or the other.   Just in case a visitor does not understand, flags hang almost everywhere either the Union Jack to mark the Protestant areas or the Irish flag to mark the Catholic zones.

This division invades the minds of people.  The next day, I interviewed Mairead Maguire, the Northern Irish woman who had risked her life and won a Nobel Peace Prize in this troubled land.  However, even with a modern-day saint, the interview started, as almost all conversations do here, by Maguire trying to figure out (but not asking directly) what religion I was.

There is a long, ignoble tradition in journalism of the foreign pressman claiming to bravely go where few would go, but never revealing that the whole time they were  accompanied by a local person.  So let me be clear, during my night on the Falls and Shankill Roads I was accompanied by an Irish woman who happens to be the best politician to ever examine the problems of match-fixing.  Her name is Senator Cecilia Keaveney.  She was the head of the Council of Europe’s Task Force on anti-corruption in sports.  She is the absolute exception to most politicians: tough, gusty and utterly brave.  She fought hard against fixing until unseated in last year’s election when her party – Fianna Fail – was swept out of power.

What we did that night was considered by most people Belfast to be mad.   However, for me as an outsider the penalties would have been light – a beating up at worst.   Keaveney, however, has a very thick Donegal accent which instantly tells people in Belfast that she is Catholic and Irish.  She is also a public figure, so when I asked her if she wanted to come along I expected her to politely decline. Instead a determined smile crossed her face, she nodded and said, “I am ready for it all.  Lets see what will happen.”

When we arrived in the Falls Road, night was falling.  This is a historic Catholic area.  It is just up from where the Unionist paramilitaries hit another pub with a rocket attack and down from where a crazed group of mourners had dragged two innocent British soldiers out of their car and lynched them.

The people in the pub were absolutely friendly.  The game was broadcast on large screens but the sound track was that dreadful musical mix that predominates in almost every Irish pub.  Forget musical geniuses like Bono, Geldof or Van Morrison – most drinking establishments in the Emerald Isle feature a soundtrack of the worst songs of Elvis Presley, Percy Sledge with the occasional Robbie Williams track thrown in for modernity.

In general, there seemed little sectarian danger for a Canadian outsiderLike any pub in any poorer part of town, anywhere in the world, it might be a place where someone would thump you for your wallet if you were particularly annoying.  But we had no problems, we watched the game, sipped our drinks and left at half-time.

Then came the problem of crossing the lines.   We asked the taxi driver where a good pub would be to watch the game in the Protestant area.

“I have no idea.” He shrugged hopelessly, and stared out the window in a worried fashion.  The Shankill Road is a few hundred metres from the Falls Road, but for a Catholic taxi driver, it is a foreign country.  In the same way, there are ‘Catholic or Protestant restaurants’ – so too there are sectarian taxi companies that can only go safely to specific areas in the city.

The Shankill Road is Protestant territory.   The Royal Pub, where we watched the game is at its centre.  Nearby is a large memorial for the five people killed when the IRA attacked a pub in 1975.  The street is lined with murals proclaiming support for the Ulster paramilitary groups.  This is where many of the July parades form, when hard-line Protestants from across Northern Ireland march into Catholic areas accompanied by bands and flags to celebrate the victory of Protestant armies several hundred years ago.  A few hundred metres away are the high ‘peace walls’ of iron and barbed wire that separate the communities.   Widespread graffiti announces to the neighbourhood that there should be no cooperation with the new, non-denominational Northern Irish police force.

For Keaveney drinking in the pub was risky, but she seemed utterly unfazed.  However,

here is the key.  There was – to a Canadian – no difference between the two pubs.  This is not Israeli settlers versus Palestinians or Kurdish Peshmergas versus Iraqi Sunnis, where you can immediately tell which side of the sectarian divide you are on.   The people in the Protestantpub sounded the same as the Catholic pub.  They dressed the same (except for their football jerseys).  They were for all-practical purposes identical. Even the same soundtrack of American pop hits circa-1962 played in the pubs.  This is why so much of Belfast conversation is about determining which religion you are or so much of the neighbourhoods are strewn with flags – there are few outward signs to show the difference, so it must be deliberately announced.

In the end, nothing happened.  It was, with the exception of one superbly taken Irish goal, a boring match.   There were no riots. No burning of tires. No marches.  Chalk one up for the official version of this country.  Or at least it seemed that way until we got another taxi.

“Where is there a neutral area, a no-man’s land, in this city?” I asked.

The driver laughed.

“This is Belfast. There is none.”

Then he turned his head and listening to Keaveney’s Donegal accent, asked,

“If you don’t mind my asking, what was the likes of you doing in the Royal Pub on the Shankill Road?’

She laughed this time and said, “Ahhh, it was grand craic!”   [Translation – it was a great fun.”]

Today, there are no politicians who have the courage or toughness of Cecilia Keaveney fighting match-fixing.  It is a great pity.

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