There could be disturbances across the North if soccer squads from both parts of Ireland are given a joint reception at Belfast city hall, a leading loyalist has warned.
Billy Hutchinson, pictured, who has links to the paramilitary UVF, has warned that there could be a return to the flag protests of 2012/13 if the joint reception goes ahead.
It is the first time a ‘Northern Ireland’ team has qualified for a major competition alongside the Irish national side.
The SDLP has proposed that the two teams are honoured by Belfast city council before they travel to France in the summer for the European Championships.
Hutchinson warned that a joint reception could end in chaos.
“I warned them over removing the flag, that it would lead to protests should they go down that road. It will be the same again,” he said.
On Tuesday evening, a sectarian lobby campaign known as the Protestant Coalition held a small protest at Belfast city hall as the motion was approved. The group previously held an anti-refugee protest outside city hall in December, but were outnumbered by a counter demo held by anti-fascists.
Alliance councillor Michael Long described the campaign as “extremely worrying”. He said new protests would be a “PR disaster” which would plunge Belfast back into “dangerous and deeply unpleasant times”.
In a reference to Derry-born footballer James McClean, Hutchinson said that those players who refused to wear the poppy in remembrance of Britain’s war dead “wouldn’t be welcome”.
The leader of the so-called ‘Progressive Unionist Party’ claimed it was “disgraceful” that someone who played for an English team refused to wear a poppy, saying: “My attitude is ‘When in Rome, do what the Romans do.”
The DUP’s Brian Kingston said inviting both teams was “inappropriate” as ‘Northern Ireland’ was the only national team. Jim Rodgers of the Ulster Unionists said he would prefer a reception for teams from the ‘British Isles’, to include England and Wales.
But there was little surprise that unionists would adopt a sectarian attitude to the event.
The decision of James McClean to opt to play for the Irish national side is the result of death threats from loyalists because of his religion and his refusal to wear a poppy -- and he is just one of a long line of victims of sectarianism by loyalist soccer fans.
Following years of abuse, former Celtic manager and County Armagh man, Neil Lennon, was threatened by loyalists while representing ‘Northern Ireland’, and as a consequence, decided never to play for the team again.
In September 2008, he was subjected to a sectarian assault in Glasgow, also by loyalists, and in January 2011, the Royal Mail intercepted packages containing bullets addressed to Lennon and other Catholic players in the northern eleven.
But at the council meeting, unionist amendments were defeated meaning the original plan to hold a joint reception for both teams will go ahead.
The SDLP’s Declan Boyle is optimistic about the planned event, describing it as “a genuine and long-overdue attempt at inclusiveness and reconciliation”.
“The Republic has Northern Ireland players in its ranks. We should be celebrating all this. Everybody talks about shared space, well having a joint reception for both teams will show that Belfast City Hall is open to everybody. It will be a great advertisement to the world.”