Friday 22 November 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Rather than complain about English bigotry we should do something to curb our version'

Alan Mannus of Shamrock Rovers celebrates after the FAI Cup Final
Alan Mannus of Shamrock Rovers celebrates after the FAI Cup Final
Alan Mannus. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Alan Mannus was refreshingly straightforward about his refusal to face the flag as the national anthem was played before the FAI Cup final. "When it's not your country you just stand there and let it play. When everyone turned. I just didn't know what to do. I was thinking 'if I'm not Irish do I turn? So I thought I'd just stand the way I was originally facing which I didn't feel was being disrespectful," said the Shamrock Rovers keeper.

He also said he was "devastated" by the controversy surrounding his stance, wasn't making a political gesture and, "would do things differently the next time."

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It's hard to see how you could take offence with that. Mannus may have had in mind what happened at last year's Irish Cup final when Cliftonville, a team representing a nationalist area of Belfast, kept their heads down when 'God Save The Queen' was played before the game.

Whatever reasons Mannus, a Northern Irish Protestant who identifies as British, gives I think most Irish football fans would accept he was entitled to look wherever he liked. We are, after all, in the middle of poppy season when James McClean's refusal to wear the titular decoration will see him barracked by English fans and roundly defended by the majority of the Irish population.

Most people who defend McClean do so on the basis that the player is exercising freedom of conscience. And one of the reasons why the furore over the Mannus incident was relatively muted is that we know full well that what's sauce for the Stoke City goose should be sauce for the Shamrock Rovers gander. To defend one and deride the other would merely be to expose yourself as a hypocrite.

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Not that this bothered those who decided to abuse Mannus on social media early last week. I'd wager that many of the most vigorous attackers of Mannus rank among the most vigorous defenders of McClean. They might pretend otherwise but their support of McClean has much less to do with freedom of expression than with the fact that they like to see him sticking it to the Brits.

The plethora of witless comments directed towards James McClean at this time of the year normally give us a smug feeling of moral superiority vis a vis English bigotry.

But we have plenty of similar clients here and Alan Mannus inadvertently flushed them into the open last Sunday. The irony is that the 'James McClean must wear the poppy' and the 'Alan Mannus should have saluted our flag' brigades are the mirror images of one another. Those involved may belong to different tribes but their political outlook is remarkably similar.

Anyone arguing that James McClean is in a unique position because of Bloody Sunday should ponder the fact that people pledging allegiance to our national flag killed an awful lot of people in Alan Mannus's part of the world. Most of us know that, which is another reason the attempt to set the dogs on him didn't really succeed.

An All-Ireland League, like a united Ireland, is something many people say they want without really thinking about the compromises which would have to be made for it to work. What would be played before a cup final between Linfield and Dundalk? One national anthem as a show of blatant partiality, or two to add an extra sectarian edge as each side boos the other's tune? Better to go with none. One man's meat is another man's poison.

Current GAA presidential candidate Jarlath Burns caused a furore four years ago when he suggested that not playing the national anthem before GAA matches and generally toning down the nationalist flavour of the occasion might create a better relationship between the Association and the unionist community.

It was an interesting idea and one which had a kind of echo last year in Cliftonville's request to the IFA not to play 'God Save The Queen' at the Irish Cup final. There's no reason sporting occasions have to be surrounded by nationalist trappings.

I'm using 'nationalist' in the classic sense rather than as a euphemism for Catholic, which is how it's usually used here. Classic nationalism isn't some kind of natural phenomenon, though sometimes you could be mistaken for thinking it is. It's just another ideology, so why mix it with sport at all? Especially in a post-colonial age when the sentiments expressed in 'their' national anthem might well be anathema to some of the players standing for it.

Alan Mannus may simply have made a mistake last Sunday. But he still raised issues worth thinking about.

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