Like every right-minded Northern Ireland fan, I was revolted to see footage online of so-called football supporters wearing our colours and chanting a sectarian song in a Belfast bar on Sunday night.
A small group, seemingly five or six strong, was filmed singing the lyrics ‘we hate Catholics, everybody hates Roman Catholics’ to Tiffany’s 1980s hit, I think we’re alone now.
I follow Northern Ireland home and away, and especially in the old days, I witnessed occasional bad behaviour, but this was a new one on me. A little googling revealed that this pathetic ditty has been linked in the past to Rangers’ fans, who reportedly sang it in bars in Scotland.
The incident was moronic, embarrassing and tarnished a brilliant few days for Northern Ireland supporters, who were relishing their team sitting on top of its European qualifying group, having defeated Estonia and Belarus.
Their reaction was overwhelmingly horror and disbelief. They know the impact that these stories can have on their reputation and on the future of the international squad, which has to compete for young players with the Republic.
The Green and White Army no longer expects to be associated with this sort of incident. Indeed, it’s a mark of the good behaviour of most spectators over many years that the spotlight has shifted to social media videos that are filmed far from the stadium.
The problem was always exaggerated, but once it wasn’t uncommon to hear sectarian songs or witness bigoted behaviour at Windsor Park. Now, the people who want to engage in these unpleasant activities are forced to skulk in dark, obscure corners. Most of us wouldn’t see or hear anything about them, if it weren’t for camera-phones and Twitter.
On Sunday evening, mainstream pubs across the city centre and South Belfast were packed with good-humoured Northern Ireland fans, looking forward to the match. Ahead of nearly every game, well-known hostelries like Lavery’s, The Empire, Ryan’s and the Bridge House are meeting places for hundreds of supporters. This influx of hungry and thirsty customers must be a huge boost for the local economy.
The story of how self-policing supporters, working with the IFA, transformed the atmosphere at Windsor Park under the slogan ‘Football for All, is well-known and frequently it’s cited as an example of how this country changed for the better.
These efforts were embraced by the vast majority, who recognised that their team was being held back by a perception that it was for only one part of the community. Sadly, a tiny minority felt resentful about this change in direction.
When the former Liverpool winger, John Barnes, was asked about racism in football earlier this week, he said that the problem was bound up with issues in wider society. He could easily have been speaking about sectarianism in sport in Northern Ireland. Some people seem to think that their identity is under attack, whenever obnoxious behaviour becomes less acceptable.
There have always been a few hangers-on who complained that the Green and White Army — a nickname they loathe — was becoming too ‘politically correct’. They went on about ‘jesters hats’, or the ‘clothes police’ who supposedly frowned upon red, white and blue outfits, or they alleged that the stands had been taken over by ‘middle-class students’.
These people felt alienated, because the days when they were comfortable using Northern Ireland games to assert an aggressive, exclusive version of the Ulster identity were long gone. Most supporters believe that the boisterous, friendly atmosphere, the team colours and the lack of party songs represents progress, but one or two see it as a sign that they’ve been sidelined or that the matchday experience has been sanitised.
They’re more to be pitied than anything else, though they can do real damage to Northern Ireland’s reputation. They take any opportunity to experience the old transgressive thrill of being openly sectarian and they do so with ill-disguised glee. You see the same attitude when nationalist youths chant ‘up the ‘Ra’.
As I walked down Botanic Avenue prior to the game on Sunday, the group I was with received a volley of abuse about ‘Northern Ireland hun bastards’ from across the street. You could only look at the two sorry looking perpetrators sniggering under their baseball caps and laugh.
That kind of thing used to be fairly common too, for spectators making their way to see the international team. Thankfully, the experience these days is much more positive and enjoyable all round.
There’s a pride and enthusiasm about following Northern Ireland that has come with better performances on the pitch and Belfast is a more welcoming place for our fans too.
The Irish FA has rightly promised to stop the sectarian singers from getting tickets to further matches. People who feel their identity is bound up with behaving obnoxiously are an increasingly beleaguered minority.
Their antics won’t be allowed to overshadow another exciting qualifying campaign.