Republican News · Thursday 19 November 1998

[An Phoblacht]

The game was politics

By Laura Friel

The very public wrangle at the heart of the West Belfast community precipitated by the Donegal Celtic football club's initial decision to go ahead with a soccer match against the RUC has left all sides of the argument saddened and hurt.

Even many of their most vociferous critics recognised the club's predicament. It is not unreasonable for a club to wish to compete within a prestigious league to the best of its abilities and the talents of the club's young team. Built in one of the most economically deprived communities in Western Europe, the prospect of accessing funds on the back of agreeing to play a match with the RUC, was understandably persuasive.

The club never wanted to play the RUC; members hoped to go through the competition without being drawn against them. In the event Donegal Celtic was faced with the very decision it had wished to avoid.

Their team was tipped to win the Steel and Sons Cup, a substantial lottery grant was waiting in the wings. No wonder the club's management was tempted to turn their faces away from the reality of life in West Belfast. If only they could momentarily forget the pain and suffering inflicted on this community by the RUC. If Sinn Fein could speak to its political opponents in Stormont, why couldn't Donegal Celtic kick a football around with the RUC? What about reconciliation? What about the Good Friday Agreement?

On Sunday 8 November members of the club met to vote on the decision whether or not to play with the RUC. The meeting lasted less than 20 minutes. There was no debate. 108 voted yes, 79 voted no, with one abstention. Everyone was treated to three free pints in the bar.

``We did not want the game to go ahead because we support the RUC, it was because we support football and don't believe politics and sport should mix,'' said club secretary Brian McCartney. Those who claimed a dichotomy between sport and politics had won the day but their argument was unsustainable and everybody really knew it. A community at the apex of 30 years of struggle, West Belfast is a highly politicised community.

Founded in Lenadoon in 1970, Donegal Celtic grew, root and branch, out of that community's experiences of marginalisation, demonisation and conflict. When the club tried to turn its face away from the relatives of Julie Livingstone, Seamus Duffy and all the other victims of RUC brutality it was turning away from itself. The contradictions cut to the very heart of the club, down to the very team itself. One player, whose father was shot dead by the RUC, initially supported the club's decision, only to find himself at odds with the rest of his family. Other families were also divided by the decision. Players were divided, the club members were divided, the club was at odds with many in their own community.

Intense lobbying by Relatives for Justice, backed by elected representatives in Sinn Fein, and with the possibility of a damaging boycott looming on the horizon, Donegal Celtic faced the reality they had been trying to deny for weeks.

On Thursday 12 November, just two days before the match against the RUC, club officials announced they had withdrawn their team from the fixture. In a statement announcing their withdrawal, the committee admitted that their original decision had ``become a source of controversy and division.[which] obviously caused annoyance and upset to a great many people especially within our own local community and patrons. This controversy has taken its toll on committee members, the team management and especially the players who have been, against their will, thrown into the eye of the storm.''

But the storm wasn't over yet. ``Play RUC and we'll shoot you'' ran the Newsletter front page, ``Donegal Celtic players were told they would be kneecapped if they didn't bow to IRA demands.'' Sinn Fein was ``enforcing cultural apartheid'', using ``bully boy tactics'', Ian Paisley accused the IRA of blackmail, David Ervine called Sinn Féin fascists and RUC Chief Ronnie Flanagan hinted at intimidation. ``IRA forced players to cancel game,'' ran the Sunday Tribune, ``Donegal Celtic players ready to claim IRA intimidation to cancel RUC match.''

``The Games's Up,'' concluded the Sunday Times, ``Republican strong arm tactics...'' and so it went on. As the media indulged in a furious anti republican diatribe, one thing was clear, it had been political all along.

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