Sunday 18 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: In a world where Martin McGuinness can meet the Queen... surely McClean can acknowledge her anthem

‘James McClean should respect the British anthem because good manners cost nothing’
‘James McClean should respect the British anthem because good manners cost nothing’

Eamonn Sweeney

James McClean has every right to turn away from the Flag of St George and show his lack of respect for the British national anthem. But just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

A short while back I wrote a column defending McClean's decision not to wear the Remembrance Day poppy. I still think he was right to do so: the military connotations of the poppy make it problematic for those who have no love for the British Army. I never wore one myself when I lived in England and none of the English people I worked with ever took exception to this.

But the fact that McClean was right on that issue, and was subjected to some pretty ignorant criticism, doesn't mean he did the right thing last week. Would it have killed him to face the flag for a couple of minutes? At this juncture those who defend the player tend to bring up his background in Derry in a somewhat misty eyed fashion which suggests they're channelling vague nostalgic memories of hearing the last verse of The Town I Loved So Well in a pub somewhere. It's as though they're picturing the teenage McClean pegging stones at an armoured car as bullets fly over his head.

Yet McClean was born in 1989, which means that he was five years old at the time of the first IRA ceasefire and nine when the Good Friday Agreement was ratified. His first-hand experience of The Troubles is somewhat limited.

It's limited because of the Peace Process, the finest Irish political achievement of modern times and one in which the Irish and British governments and Nationalist and Unionist politicians all played their part. Albert Reynolds, John Major, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, John Hume, Gerry Adams and David Trimble mightn't have got everything right in their political careers but in that instance they excelled themselves.

One of the most important results of the Peace Process is that people had to move past old injustices and hatreds, no matter how hard this was to stomach in some cases. So Martin McGuinness found himself shaking hands with the Queen and Prince Charles did likewise with Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast Mairtin O'Muilleoir attended Armistice Day ceremonies which commemorated soldiers who had died wearing British Army uniforms. I'm sure these gestures stuck in the craw of people on both sides yet they marked another step away from the bloody past. And perhaps the most remarkable example of how things had changed came at the funeral of PSNI Constable and Tyrone GAA member Ronan Kerr in April 2011 when GAA members formed a guard of honour and senior Unionist politicians attended.

In a world where Martin McGuinness can meet the Queen, why is it too much to expect James McClean to acknowledge her anthem? McGuinness, after all, had comrades killed and imprisoned by the British during the conflict. And Prince Charles had a beloved great uncle killed by the IRA. There are many people on both sides who have suffered a great deal more than James McClean but opted for the path of reconciliation. Uneasy reconciliation perhaps but reconciliation nonetheless.

Last week in South Carolina the West Bromwich Albion player implied that God Save The Queen disgusts him to such an extent that he can't afford it simple courtesy. Given the changes which have occurred in the North this seems an oddly old-fashioned attitude. It's entirely out of tune with mainstream nationalism and instead echoes the irredentist attitudes of dissident republicanism and of Tom Elliott, the Ulster Unionist MP who turned down an invitation from the GAA to attend the Ulster quarter-final between Fermanagh and Antrim in Enniskillen. Elliott couldn't do it, he said, because the Irish National Anthem would be played and the tricolour flown. Which strikes a familiar note.

Most of the justification of James McClean's anthem stance has been along the lines of, "Isn't it good to see a footballer standing up for what he believes in?" Well, I didn't hear many of the same people supporting Tom Elliott on the grounds that it's good to see a politician standing up for what he believes in.

I didn't stick up for Tom Elliott. I took out my rhetorical shillelagh and belaboured him soundly in this column for his bigotry. But in fact he and James McClean are singing from the same hymn sheet, they're both insisting on the integrity of their grievance and saying that fundamentally nothing has changed. It's intellectually dishonest to berate one and not the other just because one of them is on 'our' side and the other is on 'theirs.'

The idea that there is some insurmountable obstacle preventing James McClean from going through the formality of respecting God Save The Queen depends on the notion that there is something unique about Irish suffering. What nonsense. In the century just gone Germany conquered a large part of Europe and subjected the native population to appalling sufferings. The Soviet Union did the same. Yet sportspeople from those previously subjugated countries have stood to attention for the German and the Russian anthems year after year.

Then there are the countries which were previously colonised by the English, the French, the Germans, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Belgians, the Americans etc etc, and all the various countries which have been at war with each other. They too manage to control their historical rage for the couple of minutes it takes a band to plod through a national anthem. Are they misguided to do so? Is James McClean a paragon of integrity who offers an example to them all? Would we be better off if looking away from the flag in response to the injustices of the past were to become as much part of football matches as amusing celebrations? Would we hell.

The McClean and Elliott gestures make me think of the words of the great Serbian-born American poet Charles Simic, "The supreme folly of every nationalism is that it believes itself unique, while in truth it's nothing more than a bad Xerox copy of every other nationalism. Unknown to them their self-delusions and paranoia are identical. Hypocrites who have never uttered a word of regret for the evil committed by their side shed copious tears for real and imaginary injustices done to their people over the centuries."

James McClean shouldn't respect the British Anthem because he earns his wages over there or because a sportsman should do what his manager tells him or because of any of the other dodgy reasons advanced during the poppy controversy. He should do so because good manners cost nothing and there's no sense in seeking confrontation where it's not necessary. If this means he has to swallow his pride, so be it. If people hadn't been willing to swallow their pride 20-odd years ago there'd never have been peace in the North.

And anyone who wants to make the, "Ah, but Bloody Sunday," argument should think of the fact that McClean is now plying his trade in a city where the IRA murdered 21 people by putting bombs in two pubs 40 years ago. Nobody had a monopoly on suffering during the Troubles. If Birmingham is willing to get over the past, James McClean should be too.

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