Sectarianism, Excuses and Bigotry

Updated: Jan 3, 2020

During yesterday’s 5-2 home loss to Stoke City an announcement was made over the PA system warning home fans against “offensive behaviour” within the stadium. That related to sectarian chanting aimed at Stoke winger James McClean from a small section of the home support.

After I found about the incident I was tempted to brush it off and comfort myself with the thought that it came from “a small group of idiots”. However, after ruminating on it and reading a number of unrepentant, and indeed inflammatory posts on Twitter and Facebook I thought it only right to cover the matter in detail on the site.

Amongst all of the anger and uproar there is a common theme of misunderstanding, both by those who support the chanting and abhor it. I therefore, felt it was necessary to provide a bit of historical context to the issue in the hope that it will help to refocus our minds on what was ultimately, bigotry in a football stadium.

Bloody Sunday

In 1971 the British government signed off on Operation Demetrius, which involved the mass arrest and interment of Catholics suspected of involvement with the IRA. The stated objective of the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary was to cut of terrorism at the source.

However, there were serious claims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse by officers and soldiers who took part in Operation Demetrius. In response to this a peaceful protest march was organised for the 30th January 1972 in the city of Derry/Londonderry.

Thousands of men, women and children lined the streets for the planned march from Bishop’s Field in the Creggan housing estate to the Guildhall. In response, the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment were dispatched to stop the protestors from reaching Guildhall.

The march began around 3pm and within the space of just a few hours 13 civilians were dead, with one dying months later from his injuries. The Parachute Regiment indiscriminately fired bullets into the crowds, killing mainly teenagers.

In 2010 an independent government enquiry found that the soldiers had no justification for shooting into the crowd. The report also concluded that several of the soldiers involved along with senior army personnel, deliberately lied about the events of the day to justify the atrocity.

David Cameron’s apology for Bloody Sunday in 2010 went some way to healing the pain felt by certain individuals. However it could not possibly heal the pain of the city as a whole, which had suffered similarly both before and after Bloody Sunday.

(Father Edward Daly holding a bloodied white flag in the aftermath of the British Army shooting unarmed civilians.)

The Poppy

One year on from the end of the Great War, the poppy was adopted as the memorial flower in France, America and Britain. Over the coming decades the red poppy would become synonymous with the British army, and remain popular in both the UK and the wider Commonwealth.

The aim of the poppy is to commemorate the servicemen and women killed in conflict, not just in the Great War or in the Second World War, but in all subsequent conflicts.

In Northern Ireland, the wearing of a poppy is prohibited in many workplaces as it holds a slightly different meaning there than it does in England. In Northern Ireland it is often seen as a political symbol and is frequently used to taunt or provoke the nationalist community, whom frequently refuse to wear one.

Most nationalists choose not to wear the poppy as it is a symbol to commemorate all British soldiers lost in conflict. In good conscience, people from this community cannot wear a poppy as it commemorates soldiers who have murdered Irish civilians during the Troubles, or those that colluded with loyalist paramilitaries.

In Derry/Londonderry, the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre, it is even more of a pointed issue. For many the memory of the Parachute Regiment firing on innocent civilians is all too easy to remember.

Whilst James McClean may not be old enough to remember Bloody Sunday, members of his family certainly do. Therefore, in good conscience for not only his family but for the people of his city, he cannot wear a poppy.

We should not force him to wear a poppy just because he is a footballer playing in this country, and equally, we should not castigate him for his choice.

If, for example, the British Army had murdered 13 civilians in Huddersfield Town centre, we would perhaps rethink our own attitudes to the poppy.

Target Of Abuse

James McClean’s decision not to wear the poppy on his shirt during October and November has made him a repeated target of abuse at football stadiums up and down the country.

Indeed the last time we played West Brom at home, a Town fan launched a missile at James McClean from the stands.

It was rather quickly claimed that this was in response to a bad tackle made by McClean, but most likely, it had something to do with the winger’s stance to the poppy and his subsequent portrayal in the media.

For some, McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy makes him a legitimate target for abuse, vitriol and harassment. It is tempting for many to say that the winger “deserves” what he gets, because of his confrontational attitude on the pitch.

When we find ourselves getting carried away in this sort of fervour, it is important to remember that football is a game. No-one playing a game, should be subjected to vile abuse because of how they choose to play that game…

James McClean – The Excuses

Following yesterday’s incident in the Stoke game there were a number of excuses/explanations flying around social media and forums. Here are just a few to mull over;

“The IRA are terrorists”

That they may well have been, but what is for certain is that James McClean is not a terrorist. To direct this chant at him because he is Irish and does not want to wear a poppy is offensive, end of story.

*Ironically, the chant used by Town fans to condemn a terrorist organisation is also sung by supporters of the UVF & the UDA, loyalist terrorist organisations.

“I didn’t know the IRA were a race!?”

Semantics. Many media outlets have reported the chanting as “racist” instead of as sectarian. This has given many people the opportunity to divert the argument onto the issue of semantics, rather than the core problem, which is bigotry at football games.

Using this excuse is akin to a child smoking your pack of cigarettes whilst you’re in bed and then saying, “You NEVER told me not to smoke them”. It’s childish and is done to deliberately mislead and obfuscate the argument.

“He deserves it”

To use the analogy of a child again… If your five-year old comes home and tells you that they have called someone a ‘c*nt’ because they did a mean thing in a game, what would you say?

Final Thoughts

In the aftermath of sectarian chanting many contrarians have tried to deliberately muddy the waters and make the argument about specific language, provocation or quite frankly, anything else than the core issue.

Then there are those that appear to have simply misunderstood the context of the incident or its background, which is fine. That’s what drove me to write this article, to provide people with a bit of information about the James McClean situation.

Unfortunately there are also those people that know nothing of the history to this incident, harbour no ambition to learn about it and still hold deeply problematic views. These people exist in society and, ergo in football as well.

They are quite plainly bigots and we do not want them at football. Unfortunately I do not know how to solve this problem. My only suggestion is, if you hear someone you know chanting something like this at a football game, tell them that it’s not okay, and if you have to, tell them why.

Football is a game, and we should all be able to enjoy it without having to listen to racist, homophobic or sectarian abuse, end of story.

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