Saturday 17 March 2018

Dion Fanning: James McClean lucky to live where eejitry is easily accommodated

'Maybe it was up to Irish people to point out that McClean might have gone too far.'
'Maybe it was up to Irish people to point out that McClean might have gone too far.'

Dion Fanning

A childhood friend of mine was once at a disco in the west of Ireland when, as was the custom, the national anthem was played at the end of the night. While everybody else stood to attention in the bored way of young people, my friend saluted. He was, he explained later, wearing his scout belt at the time and it was important to show some respect while on active service, or even inactive service. Anthems and flags do strange things to people, although my friend had the defence that he was 13 years old at the time.

There was something deeply adolescent about James McClean's actions in South Carolina last weekend, but perhaps he should be left alone to work through his adolescence, even if he is 26 years old.

During a by-election in England last year, a member of the shadow cabinet, Emily Thornberry, tweeted a picture of a house in the constituency which had three flags of St George hanging from windows. "Image from #Rochester", was all her tweet said but it was enough. Thornberry was sacked by Ed Miliband, who didn't want voters to think that Labour was full of metropolitan types who had contempt for the country's flag or had a strange reaction to those who displayed it prominently.

David Cameron remarked that "effectively what this means is Ed Miliband's Labour party sneers at people who work hard, who are patriotic and who love their country. And I think that's completely appalling".

It was hard to say if this was its effective meaning but Miliband was reportedly "angrier than he has ever been" at Thornberry's perceived slight against the hard-working people who love their country, whatever that means.

Neither Cameron nor Miliband spends much time with these people but it's important they give the impression that nothing enthuses them more than the prospect of doing so.

Politicians must live in this world of bullshit but most people try to stay away from it. McClean was drawn into that world last weekend when his refusal to face the flag of St George during God Save the Queen angered many people. He has been here before, not with his refusal to wear a poppy, which was entirely understandable, but in his unnecessary Twitter battles which drew out bigots and others who disagreed with him. He is, of course, entitled to say and do what he likes no matter how stupid without being threatened or abused. He is entitled to express his admiration for The Broad Black Brimmer by the Wolfe Tones without receiving sectarian tweets or being told to leave England, even if others are also entitled to form a view of him.

Naturally some bigots were enraged from the moment he made the reasonable stance not to wear the poppy and have been waiting for him since. Into this camp, we can place Kirk Broadfoot, banned for ten games on Friday and about to embark on an educational programme, following his sectarian abuse of McClean earlier this year.

But not everybody who was bothered by McClean's gesture last weekend is a bigot. The national anthem and the flag are not the poppy and mean many things to many people. God Save the Queen is a terrible tune with terrible words but so is Amhrán na bhFiann and I think the reaction if an Englishman living in Ireland did something similar would be much more pronounced than the restrained response to McClean's gesture in Britain.

Equally some of us may find anyone who expresses devotion to any flag strange but maybe only a minority agree with Schopenhauer that "every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs".

One of the many wonderful things about living in England is that the healthy streak of self-loathing ensures that there is never too much obligation to conform to abstract notions of pride in the country, except if you are a politician or perhaps a footballer.

On the other hand, nearly four million people voted for UKIP at the last election, so there are a lot of people out there who consider themselves so patriotic and have such love for their country that they don't want any more people living in it.

There are also plenty of reasonable people in England who would have understood McClean's position on the poppy but found his gesture last weekend disrespectful.

It was notable, too, that the most articulate articles in defence of McClean appeared in British newspapers and websites which may or may not have been influenced by that healthy streak of self-loathing that is a civilising force in society.

Maybe it was up to Irish people to point out that McClean might have gone too far. After all, many in Ireland were outraged when Conor McGregor and Paul Dunne were described as British in the last fortnight, suggesting a deep sensitivity to issues surrounding our own identity.

But when McClean refused to face the flag there was less sensitivity to how other people might feel about their identity or the danger of being disrespected.

Instead Ireland demonstrated a great understanding for one of her own and let people in Britain challenge the knee-jerk response from some in the UK while reserving the right to jerk our own knees when the mood takes us.

James McClean is under no obligation to embrace the flag. Norman Tebbit's cricket test never really took on among the communities who were supposed to support England, not India or Pakistan. The Irish community's self-evident integration in Britain demolished the idea that somehow supporting England ahead of the country of your birth is necessary to belong.

One of the many wonderful things about living in England is that it is able to accommodate a man as prone to eejitry as James McClean. England is at its best when it allows him his moment of adolescent protest and defends his right to do so while essentially ignoring him. The demand for respect can sometimes sound like a demand for obedience. But the miserable fools who abused McClean may have glimpsed in him last weekend a little bit of themselves.

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