What a night that was. I woke up with a smile in my heart and soul singing "We're not Brazil we're Northern Ireland..." On Twitter last night Patrick Kielty had even translated that chant into French. Northern Ireland have qualified for the European Championship Finals for the first time ever and the first major finals since 1986. I was there when they made history in the 80s. Last night I was working and when the news broke in our meeting it was hard to stay focused.
This is an incredible achievement. International football has tougher competition across nations than it had in the 80s. Northern Ireland have less Premier League players and some of them were injured or suspended last night. I cannot express what the manager Michael O'Neill and captain Steven Davis have achieved and both are from my home town of Ballymena. I know it shouldn't matter but it does that one was a Catholic boy who went to school at St Louis and the other Protestant boy who attended Ballymena Academy. A town united in sport! It shouldn't matter but in our circumstances it makes me even more proud.
To add to the amazement, The Republic Of Ireland beat the World Champions Germany in Dublin to keep their hopes of qualifying very much alive. Well done to the other O'Neill, Martin, from Kilrea and that entire team.
As I finally got home and started to take in the euphoria, I was very quickly drawn to the Snow Patrol song Lifening. Below is a blog I wrote a year ago when Northern Ireland won in Greece and the Republic drew with Germany in Germany. I reblog it this morning as an antidote to the sectarian decision of the DUP to reject a motion that the Stormont Assembly send the Republic Of Ireland team best wishes in their match as they sent Northern Ireland best wishes in theirs. That kind of sin forced divisiveness is what we need to rip out of the soul of our society with sentiments of grace and peace like Gary Lightbody's below. What if, Gary, both North and South made the Euros. Dreamland! Lets wish the Republic all the best on Sunday. "We're not Brazil we're Northern Ireland..."
“Ireland in the World Cup
EIther North or South”
- Snow Patrol - Lifening
“I am a proud Northern Ireland fan but I love the Rep of Ireland too. I have no politics nor religion. Just love.”
– Gary Lightbody Tweet
To follow Snow Patrol singer, Gary Lightbody’s Twitter support of both Irish soccer teams is the simplest of gestures but one which I believe makes you an active societal peacemaker. I once agreed to have coffee with an American student who seemed to have contrived a dissertation linking sport and reconciliation in Northern Ireland to gain the funding for a wee trip overseas! Having thought that I would have little to contribute to a threadbare hypothesis I agreed to have coffee.
Within seconds I was into the vast deep confusion of the intentional and unintentional segregation that is Irish sport. Soccer used to be frowned upon in the Republic Of Ireland as a foreign sport; many older folk will share how they were banned from playing it. Gaelic sports is predominantly Catholic and for many years refused to allow members who belonged to the British security forces. Rugby has been played at international level as a united team but very few of the northerners on that team would be Catholics as their schools prefer Gaelic to Rugby; a new neutral anthem was written to unite players! Catholics and Protestants can in general be divided into whether they support Glasgow soccer teams Celtic and Rangers; the shirts of these two teams could let you know what side of the city you are in.
In Belfast itself Protestants cheer Linfield and Glentoran and Catholics offer allegiance to Cliftonville. When these teams play tensions have historically run high. When it comes to the international soccer teams Protestants in general support Northern Ireland and Catholics the Republic. Catholic Neil Lennon had death threatens from Protestant paramilitaries when he played for the North. Many Catholic players have recently renounced the country of their birth to commit to playing for the Republic. Everything is political and sectarian.
So Lightbody’s throwaway Tweet and that lyric on the song Lifening from Snow Patrol’s Fallen Empires, “Ireland in the World Cup/Either North or South” are prophetic statements of reconciliation. Sport is a very powerful to set division. A pair of Rangers or Celtic slippers at 3 years of age or a shirt at 7 years of age can birth your lifetime sectarianism. Sport also gives very easy ways to cross historical boundaries and defuse the old divisions though even then some courage is needed. I have been known to follow Gaelic sport, at least when it comes to All Ireland Finals etc and wear my Antrim shirt proudly though without much hope of success. Wearing that shirt disturbs and yet can make people think and allow connections across old boundaries. I also refused to support any teams with sectarian allegiance and am like Lightbody proud to support either north or south. If they met in the final Gary who will we cheer; come on the wee north!