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26 November 1998 Edition

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Sportsview: Spolitics - a strange mix

Republicans took plenty of stick in recent weeks for raising the thorny issue of sport and politics when they called for the cancellation of the Donegal Celtic v RUC soccer match.

The Irish News went hysterically over the top, raising it as an issue on which Sinn Fein contravened the Mitchell Principles.

Ronnie Flanagan didn't say the club had been intimidated (what he said was that ``people will inevitably assume'' that they had, which was his way of putting the notion into the public domain without any evidence to back it up).

Unionists all became DC supporters, with John Taylor saying it was a shame that Donegal Celtic weren't allowed to ``play a full part'' in local soccer, which is mightily ironic given the Irish League's repeated refusal to give the West Belfast club senior status.

All the usual suspects piped up, together with a few unusual ones. The IRSP, to their shame, couldn't see why sport and politics should mix. It was crass opportunism from a party which never has to test its arguments with voters. Perhaps their spokesperson could avail of An Phoblacht's letters page to explain their position.

Of course, while all this was going on, sport and politics were busy mixing like the old buddies they are. Take the Cliftonville v Linfield match last Saturday, the first match between the sides at Cliftonville's Solitude stadium since 1970. This was hailed as the return of normality.

Not that normality has ever gone away, you know. Normality - or at least its ugly twin, the appearance of normality - has been a cornerstone of British policy in the Six Counties since before the IRSP was a twinkle in a revolutionary's eye. And sport has been a large part of it.

Who can forget the NIO's frantic efforts over the years to attract big sporting events? And the tear in Mary Peters' eye when they didn't happen?

Today's equivalent is more parochial. Cliftonville v Linfield looked the picture of cross-community harmony on the screens of Sky TV. But the whole thing was unreal - abnormal, even.

Kick-off was 11.00am, the crowd was restricted to 1500 and it took hundreds of RUC men to escort 300 Linfield fans into the ground singing that they were up to their necks in Fenian blood (the fans were singing that, not the RUC, though it's an easy mistake to make).

It was a PR exercise which will be very difficult to repeat without hundreds of RUC men clad in riot gear. This is not a normal place.

That said, there are plenty of people who say it is a normal place and that Republicans have a vested interest in making it appear not to be normal. Now we are into the world of Alice in Wonderland. Think it hard enough and say it often enough and it will be. This is a ``new era'', they cry. Well, it isn't. In the imperfect language of Sinn Fein-speak, it has the potential to be a new era. When we have a new policing service and all-Ireland bodies and all the rest, come back and we'll talk about new eras.

Sport and politics have also been mixing at Newry Town FC where the club chairman, businessman Joe Rice, was given half a page in the local paper to tell Newry fans not to shout sectarian slogans nor slag off the RUC.

At the same club an official has been giving some young supporters a hard time. It is their habit to hold up a twenty-foot long banner at home games. It reads `Iur Cinn Tra', the Irish for Newry, and this has drawn the wrath of the official who stomps up and down the touchline shouting at them. When he was challenged by an older supporter, the mystery was solved. He said he was outraged that anyone would bring in a banner that read: `Iur Cinn IRA'.

By Brian Campbell

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1