David Mitchell, Ian Somerville and Owen Hargie
The European football championships finish this month – and what will we have learned? The winners and losers, of course, but sport can also reveal society and the state we are in, illuminating what might go unnoticed. The ‘mega-event’ in France has been for the most part uncontroversial, but it has still inevitably sparked subplots of debate, among them, perceptions of Brexit, the terror threat, fan cultures, and the gloomy French national mood.
At the same time, each participating country will have spun its own story of the significance of its team’s and supporters’ exploits to the nation’s image of itself.
Nowhere is this true more than in Ireland. The qualification of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was an improbable sporting result, remarkable in its own right. But it also focussed attention on the historic political divide which runs through, not just the map of the island, but society and sport as well.
Behind the on-pitch theatre, what is going on in the backroom of grassroots identity politics in Ireland, especially the conflicted North?
Even the New York Times has been moved to comment, and a sardonic animation explaining the peculiarities of Irish soccer has spread through social media. We have been particularly interested in all of this since, back in 2012, we began a three-year, Northern Ireland Executive-funded research project examining the relationship between sport, identity and political change.
Northern Ireland has long been a go-to case study of the pernicious overlap between play and politics. Soccer, as in many countries, has been the principal problem child. For a variety of reasons, many other sports have sidestepped political controversy, but association football has always been imbued with a special capacity to epitomise national, and especially working class, identity and virility.
It was this capacity that made impossible the continuing all-island administration of soccer when Ireland was partitioned in 1920. Subsequently, Irish nationalists in the North came to support the Republic’s team as an articulation of their Irishness. They also turned to the Gaelic Athletic Association, an explicitly nationalist movement promoting Gaelic sports, for identity expression and community cohesion.
To unionists, support for the Northern Ireland soccer team has traditionally been a public display of loyalty to ‘their’ country as British, separate and legitimate. What better proof can there be that a country is a country than the fielding of its own football team?
Of course, de facto segregation in sport was just one dimension of a social identity fissure that affected most aspects of life in the North, from education to housing to recreation. Division deepened during the thirty years of inter-communal violence known as ‘the Troubles’. With security fears keeping people in their own areas, Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists were even less likely to encounter the ‘other’ on sports fields or stands.
Eventually, in 1998, the cycle of antagonism appeared to be interrupted. The Good Friday Agreement provided for power sharing, security reform, and far-reaching human rights and equality protections. Political change was profound, yet sectarianism – in attitudes and structures – remained.
The most direct impact of the peace process on the sporting world was the repeal of the GAA’s exclusion of members of the (overwhelmingly Protestant) security forces. But the start of the new millennium saw instances of sectarian trouble at Northern Ireland home football matches and the forced retirement of a Catholic player, Neil Lennon, on the back of death threats. In a vigorous but experimental counter-offensive, the Irish Football Association launched a high-profile community relations and PR campaign, ‘Football for All’.
This campaign has been widely regarded as a success, helping to create a more inclusive, relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere at matches. Our survey of 1,200 people found that similar numbers from a Protestant unionist community background and Catholic nationalist community background (60% and 56% respectively) would be happy to attend a Northern Ireland game at Windsor Park if given tickets. Perhaps even more significant, a slightly higher proportion of Catholics (71%) than Protestants (65%) agreed that the IFA was ‘taking active steps to welcome all traditions’.
And yet, the question remains of whether the Northern Ireland soccer team can ever really be unifying force when the very existence of Northern Ireland continues to be challenged by a sizeable section of its population and political leadership. Unlike Scotland and Wales which have their own anthems, ‘God Save the Queen’ – anathema to many Irish nationalists – is still sung before Northern Ireland matches.
In our survey, opinion was closely divided on the topic of anthems, with slightly more (42%) disagreeing that ‘anthems should not be part of sport in Northern Ireland’, than agreeing (36%). Protestants were significantly more likely than Catholics to hold this view.
Despite the difficulties, survey respondents overwhelmingly backed the principle of sport as a unifier, with 86% agreeing that ‘sport is a good way to break down barriers between Protestants and Catholics’. This is not an insignificant finding in a land in which sport has been so embroiled in the politics of division. It should also encourage the many policy makers, activists and academics who promote sport as vehicle of social transformation – the global ‘Sport for Development and Peace’ movement.
We are writing a few days after Republic of Ireland fans sang in tribute to a Northern Ireland fan who died in an accident. This touching moment of concord was a reminder of the symbolic, communal, almost transcendental, power of sport. In this year, the high point of the ‘decade of centenaries’ marking a string of events which forged modern Ireland, sport may be unable to reconcile divided memories. But perhaps it can at least ease the journey to a more united and peaceful future.
David Mitchell is Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast. Ian Somerville is Reader in Media and Communication at the University of Leicester. Owen Hargie is emeritus Professor of Communication at Ulster University.
Image: Northern Ireland footballers at their last home friendly before the Euros against Belarus, 27 May 2016. Photo by David Cavan.