The Loughinisland massacre of six supporters in a Co Down bar cast a shadow over a famous victory. Aidan Fitzmaurice recalls a black day and its aftermath
It's a small piece of material, black in colour, which means so much to some and causes angst to many more.
Two images of the Republic of Ireland team, playing in a World Cup game on foreign soil, tell a story which says a lot about this island and the meaning of flags, symbols and football.
In September 1997, the Irish side play in Reykjavik in the closing stages of the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup. It was the day of Princess Diana's funeral.
And at the request of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy, the Irish team wore black armbands (though it should be pointed out that not all of the players did so).
Just three years earlier, the Republic played Mexico in Orlando at the World Cup finals, six days after the 1-0 win over Italy. Six of the Irish supporters who had watched the Italian game did not see the Mexico match.
They had been slaughtered in the Heights Bar in the tiny, previously unknown village of Loughinisland.
Even though six men had been butchered, for the 'crime' of watching the Republic play, there was no evidence of the incident: no flag at half-mast, no minute's silence, no black armbands. How was it allowed to happen that the Irish team of '97, playing in a match under the FIFA banner, were permitted to use their shirts to honour someone unconnected to football, who had never been to Ireland, but yet the murder of six Irishmen as they watched the team play, went unmarked?
A gesture was made, 18 years later, when the Republic of Ireland wore black armbands, in the Euro 2012 game against Italy in Poland, on the anniversary of the massacre, a gesture welcomed by the families, some of whom gathered in the Heights Bar, scene of the atrocity, to watch that 2012 game.
"That was appreciated by the families at the time," says Niall Murphy, a Belfast-based solicitor who represents the families of the Loughinisland victims. But why did it take 18 years for football to recognise those who lost their lives while watching Ireland play?"
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Here are the facts. As Ireland played Italy in the first group game of the 1994 World Cup, on Saturday June 18, two gunmen broke into the Heights Bar in the Co Down village of Loughinisland and opened fire. In their wake lay six men dead, aged between 34 and 87, some of the survivors left with serious injuries.
The 87-year-old Barney Green was the oldest victim of the Troubles. Seven months on from a similar night of horror in the Co Derry village of Greysteel, the atrocity provoked shock, anger and dismay.
Even in the pre-digital, pre-Twitter world, news of the atrocity came quickly from across the Atlantic to the Irish camp. Jim Gracey, then a reporter for the 'Belfast Sunday Life' and on duty at the Italy game, recalls phoning his news desk telling them he had enough material from players speaking about the Irish win to make the front page the next day, only to be told that the slaughter in Loughinisland had rendered any sport meaningless.
Gracey remembers telling former Ireland international Mark Lawrenson, who was in the USA on analysis duty for the BBC, what had happened in Co Down and Lawrenson then relayed the awful news to the FAI staff and squad.
"We had waited so long for Ireland to do something dominant in sport and we were as proud as punch that night but then the failings of our country came back," Niall Quinn told the makers of the ESPN documentary 'Ceasefire Massacre'. Quinn was not in the Ireland squad due to injury but working in the US on TV duties.
Celebrations of the win over Italy vanished. "The plane ride was so sombre and so quiet, it was so unlike us. It was the quietest plane journey we ever had after a match," was how Ray Houghton recalled their trip back to Florida.
Gracey also recalled the impact. "We clambered, subdued, onto our media and team buses, which had been loaded with crates of beer and champagne for the journey to Newark, New Jersey airport and a planned mile-high party all the way back to the team base in Orlando, Florida," he wrote in the Belfast Telegraph.
"As we waited in the departure lounge, an impromptu team meeting was called and immediately it was announced it would be a dry plane. No singing, no celebrating, no bubbly or beer, as a mark of respect to the dead. It was a sombre and sobering journey."
Back at the team's base in Florida, FAI general secretary Seán Connolly spoke to the press, the Irish squad now the focus of the news media and not just the sporting press.
"That it should happen when people were watching a major sporting event on television is particularly horrifying," Connolly said. "Everybody here in the USA - players, officials and supporters - feel very saddened by the event."
A request was made by the FAI to FIFA to allow the victims to be honoured at the next group game, against Mexico, but world football's governing body, even more fearful of political issues in 1994 than they are today, said no.
In documents from 2012, leading up to a decision by UEFA to allow the Irish side wear armbands at the match in Poznan, it was suggested that FIFA had found a way to say no to the request.
"The families recall, that it had been the FAI's intention to petition FIFA in 1994 that the team would be permitted to wear armbands in the next match against Mexico, an application which is understood to have been denied on the basis of the water controversy wherein FIFA strictly enforced rules on hydration, having suspected another team of concealing hydrants in armbands in a separate fixture," says a letter from Niall Murphy, solicitor for the families, to the FAI.
The FAI had asked FIFA to allow for a minute's silence. "It would be a mark of respect for victims of violence in the North," senior FAI official Connolly said at the time.
But the focus moved back to football. Newspaper accounts of the match build-up made no issue of the black armbands, the FAI admitting defeat in their bid to have the victims honoured.
Even on the day of the Mexico game there was another appeal, this time from some US politicians. Twelve Mexican citizens had died in a plane crash and four Congressmen, including a man with a deep interest in Irish affair, Joe Kennedy, asked FIFA to allow for a minute's silence to honour the slain of Loughinisland and the Mexican dead. Again, a refusal.
Back in Ireland, the families were burying their dead, with Northern Ireland on the verge of a new abyss.
But black armbands were not on their minds. "That was the least of their worries," Niall Murphy, the families' solicitor, told the Irish Independent this week.
"I spoke to them about it this week, they had no distinct recollection of the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, it was just grief and trauma. Whether the Irish team wore black armbands against Mexico in a World Cup game in America was not foremost in their minds."
The Heights Bar, scene of the massacre, was closed on the day of the Mexico game. "There was little interest in how Ireland fared against Mexico in this hilly part of mid-Down," the Irish Independent reported in 1994. "Too many people had suffered so much in the past seven days to even care."
Reports from that week say that bars in nationalist areas of the North upped their security for the day of the Mexico match for fear of a repeat.
Also in Ireland, there was a debate over the wisdom of the Irish side wearing armbands in the following match and whether that would be seen as inflammatory or offensive by the Unionist community, that point well made 18 years later when the wearing of armbands in 2012 attracted some negative comments from Loyalists.
"There is a real danger that a ceremonial marking of the deaths might well give a murderous edge to football, the UVF might rise to the challenge," Nell McCafferty wrote in the 'Irish Press' before the Mexico match.
At the time it was more of an issue, for some, that the Ulster Championship game between Down and Monaghan went ahead the following day, though Down player Gary Mason, who was from Loughinisland and knew many of the victims, somehow found the strength to play in the game and pay his own tribute.
The Loughinisland massacre repulsed the island of Ireland. And yet the World Cup in the USA carried on. Newspaper reports from the time focused mainly on the football side of the tournament for Ireland, issues over players being allowed to take water during the Mexico game, played in the intense heat of Florida, and a subsequent touchline ban for Jack Charlton.
Sepp Blatter shrugged off an FAI appeal for players to be allowed drink water during the game. "The Irish seem to overdo this. They were complaining about drinks even before the tournament had started," he said.
A report in the 'Irish Press' looked at what colour kit the Republic would wear against Mexico (there had been confusion over green or white shirts immediately before the Italy game), not black armbands. Autobiographies from those who were in the US (Roy Keane, Packie Bonner, Niall Quinn, Alan McLoughlin, Paul McGrath, Jason McAteer, Tony Cascarino, John Aldridge) make no mention whatsoever of the massacre.
It would take three years for black armbands to appear on the sleeves of the Irish side, in September 1997.
Princess Diana's funeral took place on the same day as the qualifier in Iceland but it was pointed out that, if the game had been due to be played in Dublin, it may have been called off as a mark of respect.
A documentary on McCarthy's first campaign as Ireland manager, 'McCarthy's Park', shows the Irish squad stopping to watch the funeral on TV sets in the lobby of their Reykjavik hotel before they boarded their bus.
"Princess Diana wasn't just a British celebrity - she belonged to the world. I think it is fitting that we should now join in the respect being paid to her by people all over the world," McCarthy said at the time. "The whole nation is in mourning."
The home side, Iceland, were also in favour of a mark of respect for Diana and some of their players wore armbands. "She was not just the Queen of England, she was Queen of the world," was the emotional (though factually incorrect) comment from Iceland manager Gudjon Porboarson on the eve of the game.
"The Princess was very popular here in Iceland. Her death was big news here and we are pleased that Ireland are interested in joining us in marking her funeral."
But the armband in '97 was not a unanimous gesture. "The team decided to wear black armbands for the day because we all earn our living in England but some of the lads 'lose' them in the tunnel before the game," McAteer said in his autobiography. Both games, Mexico and Iceland, were played under the FIFA banner, just three years apart, yet permission was given in '97 which was somehow denied in '94.
A recent documentary, 'No Stone Unturned', made clear that the families are still suffering from that night in Loughinisland as no one was prosecuted for the atrocity and the investigation by what was then the RUC was widely criticised, key evidence going missing.
But there was a positive in 2012 when, once it was known that the Ireland-Italy game in Poland would fall on the anniversary of the massacre, the families asked the FAI to appeal to UEFA to allow for a memorial, and black armbands were worn in Poznan.
"As the draw was being made for the Euros we were having a meeting with the families, so it filtered through right away that Italy would be the opponents on the anniversary, and the happenstance was spine-tingling," says Niall Murray now.
"We wondered should we do anything about it, so we tossed about some ideas, a minute's silence or black armbands, we contacted the FAI and they took it on in a very sincere and dignified way, John Delaney said he'd pursue it with UEFA and we got news that UEFA were on board."
Some Loyalist voices, including former UDA commander Jackie McDonald, criticised the 2012 decision on the black armbands. "It's bringing politics into sport," he said. "They shouldn't wear them at all."
Another loyalist figure Winston 'Winkie' Rea, agreed. "It takes us back instead of working for a better future for us all," he said.
Speaking for the families, Murphy disputes that take. "Jackie McDonald doesn't have a political mandate and his views are disregarded, there was a widespread welcome for the gesture at the time," Murphy says.
"The families were delighted with that and they felt the memory of their loved ones was honoured in an international forum and was a reverse play of the intent of terrorism in the first place.
"The match was targeted because the Irish nation was gathering, all over the world, to watch the game and the headlines the next day were not about Ireland beating Italy but about six men murdered in Co Down.
"Then, in 2012, the families were able to shine a light back on the murders and get that dignified recognition. The families were together in the bar on the night of the Italy game in 2012, that was a very emotional evening.
"Sport can soothe open wounds. And the Irish team wearing black armbands in 2012 is something the families will cherish forever."
The Nation Holds Its Breath
IRELAND can now truly consider themselves among the leading football nations of the world. We can play below our best and still beat Italy and beat them comfortably with a total of arrogance added at the end for good measure.