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30 March 2000 Edition

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Lessons to be learned from Newington's plight

BY DAN O'NEILL

Like many other nationalists, I was disappointed upon hearing Newington Football Club's decision to go ahead with its recent fixture with the RUC.

While I don't for a second believe that any of the players involved had any great desire to play the game, in doing so they have given the RUC a valuable victory, regardless of the score on the field, in their charm offensive with the nationalist community.

The North Belfast club's decision was based on the threat from the Amateur League that failure to fulfil this fixture would have meant the club would have to face the rule book.

When the club previously pulled out of their first league fixture with the RUC after consulting with local relatives of victims of RUC violence, the club was fined by the league. Not fulfilling the return fixture would have meant that the club would have been expelled from the league.

The decision to sit out the first game was indeed a brave move and one which was welcomed by nationalists throughout Belfast, but I feel that the decision to play the second game was the wrong one. In my opinion, more could have been done by the club to challenge the Amateur League's inflexibility over the issue.

After all, the amateur authorities saw fit to keep the RUC in Division 1B of the league despite their being relegated two years ago. Their demotion that season would have put them in a league with a number of nationalist teams and would have caused the footballing authorities a serious headache. Instead, this season they were in a league with only one nationalist team, Newington. Any confrontation was sure to be easier for the league to handle.

But herein, I believe, lies the solution to this problem. Unless nationalist teams stick together on this issue, it will never go away. Newington should have sought the support of other sides on this issue and highlighted their opposition much earlier. They knew this scenario was on the cards last summer, but failed to do anything about it until the last minute (perhaps in the hope that it would blow over!).

A threat to pull out of the league by all nationalist teams if faced with the same dilemma as Newington in the near future would give those at the Amateur League and up Windsor Way a lot to think about. (Or perhaps they could live happily in their Ivory Tower with a Protestant league for a Protestant people).

A number of teams, including some that have previously played the RUC, have said they will back any agreed approach to this issue in the future.

Newington Football Club's survival is essential for North Belfast. It is one of the few outlets for the young people of one of the most deprived areas in the Six Counties. It is also a very successful and ambitious amateur side. Hopefully, they will not be put in this dilemma again, but the onus is on all those nationalist clubs to show solidarity and to avoid the three monkeys approach to this issue that has been prevalent for so long. It is no longer good enough to say that other nationalist teams have played the RUC in the past as an argument to avoid the issue.

We all know that the RUC is a sectarian military (not sporting) organisation and should not be allowed to participate in local football. But don't expect the Amateur League or the IFA to make the first move and offer a way out of this dilemma for nationalist clubs!

Incidentally, the RUC issue isn't the only one in local soccer of concern to nationalists. There is also the problem of the sectarian abuse dished out to nationalist clubs week in week out (remember the nails planted on the Tildarg pitches in the loyalist Suffolk area before an underage game between two nationalists sides a couple of months ago). These incidents, not surprisingly, go unnoticed and unacted upon by the Amateur League and the IFA.

Part of this problem is the fact that there are no facilities in nationalist areas. In fact, only 4 pitches out of the 95 in use by Belfast City Council are in nationalist areas. And as far as I know, none of these pitches are regularly used for local football games. And to think that the guy in charge of the Parks Department at the City Hall told me there wasn't a problem!?!
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