The sectarian nature of the unionist-dominated Irish Football Association (IFA) has been highlighted by its playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ at the start of the association’s cup final.
Cliftonville FC, a team based in north Belfast with largely nationalist support, had written to the governing body for soccer in the Six Counties to request that the British national anthem not be played before the match last Saturday, May 5.
On the last two occasions they reached the IFA Cup Final, in 2009 and 2013, the anthem was dropped from the event. The IFA at the time said the decision was to foster a ‘politically neutral environment’
However, on this occasion, the request was provocatively refused. As the anthem was played before the game, Cliftonville players lowered their heads in protest.
The IFA have claimed their policy was changed in 2013 to one of always playing ‘God Save the Queen’ at the final.
Kevin Johnston, a former chairman of the North Belfast Reds Cliftonville Supporters Club, expressed surprise at the decision. He said it exposed the IFA’s anti-sectarian statements as “nothing more than a marketing gimmick”.
“They have managed to turn a non-contentious family fun day of a cup final into a potentially toxic tension-filled throwback to 20 years ago,” he said.
Sinn Fein South Down MP Chris Hazzard said the IFA had “scored a massive own goal” by allowing the British anthem to be played and described Windsor Park, the IFA’s main stadium, as a “cold house for Irish citizens”.
Teams associated with nationalist communities have long struggled with the openly unionist attitudes of the football league in the North.
The most prominent, Derry FC, was forced out after a long dispute over other teams refusal to play in its Brandywell stadium, which is located in a republican area of the city. In 1985, it joined the 26 County Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
The IFA has frequently clashed with the FAI, most recently over its claims that the FAI had been poaching northern players to pay for the Irish national team rather than the IFA’s ‘Northern Ireland’ squad.
In a planned protest last Saturday, Cliftonville players bowed their heads as God Save the Queen was struck up.
Unionists reacted angrily to the scenes, with Upper Bann unionist Carla Lockhart tweeting after the final whistle: “They got what their disrespect deserved [by losing the final 3-1]. Well done Coleraine.”
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly described the protest as “dignified”.
“It would seem IFA have made the decision that a ‘politically neutral environment’ at Windsor Park is not for them.
“Today the message from the IFA to Irish nationalists is very negative. Windsor Park should be a venue where everyone is welcome no matter what their community background.
“Sinn Fein is calling on the IFA to review this position and return to its previous position of 2013.”