Joe Brolly

Supporting Northern Ireland is not an option

Michael O'Neill after he was unveiled as the new manager of Northern Ireland

BBC Northern Ireland aired a fascinating documentary recently. It began with footage of the 12th July parade on Belfast’s Shankill Road in the mid 1960s. As one of the bands passed, belting out The Billy Boys, a girl of seven or eight turned towards the camera and shouted f*** the Pope. The words of the Billy Boys can be found on countless websites. One fans’ version is set out this way:

Hello Hello (bellowed loudly)
We are the Billy boys
Hello Hello
You’ll know us by our noise
We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood (F*** the Pope)
Surrender or you’ll die
cause we are the Billy Billy Boys” (repeat until arrested)

The unofficial Northern Ireland supporters’ anthem has echoed around Windsor Park since time immemorial. Until the new millennium, you could buy the CD in the Windsor Park shop. Now, the supporters’ store has been cleansed of overtly sectarian material, but the culture lingers and the ghosts of the recent past still hover over the stadium.


On the 30th October 1992, Loyalist gunmen walked into the Rising Sun bar in Greysteel where a Halloween party was in full swing. Dressed in balaclavas and boiler suits, no one passed any notice until Stephen Irwin, the lead gunman, shouted Trick or Treat and opened fire, murdering seven people. An eighth victim, 76 year old Victor Montgomery, died six months later.

In 1993, Northern Ireland hosted Jack Charlton’s Republic in Windsor Park in a now infamous World Cup qualifier.

When Jimmy Quinn’s exquisite volley put the home team one up, the stand rocked to chants of, “Greysteel Seven, Ireland Nil,” and, “Trick or Treat.” The experience prompted playwright Marie Jones to pen A Night In November, a shocking and accurate portrayal of sectarian hatred.

It is only nine years ago that Neil Lennon was hounded out of the national team by death threats from the Loyalist Volunteer Force. His crime? He remarked in an interview that he would love to play for an All-Ireland team.

Rewind a decade to George Best’s testimonial at Windsor. That night, every time Roy Aitken the great Celtic captain touched the ball, the stand erupted in a frenzy of hate. A solicitor friend of mine from Derry went there to see the World XI. He says it was the most intimidating experience of his life. He never went back.

The extent of the problem is illustrated in the simple fact that a Catholic minded to support the North can’t even go for a drink with his fellow fans. The network of Glentoran, Linfield and Northern Ireland supporters clubs in Belfast backbone the Northern Ireland support. No Catholic would dare set foot in them.

I courted a beautiful girl called Geraldine Smyth when I was a senior at St Pat’s college Armagh, before she moved on to better things. Her sister Anne-Marie came up from Armagh to Belfast one night in 1992 and ended up at a gig in the Hillfoot Glentoran supporters’ club on the Castlereagh Road. When some of the patrons discovered she was a Catholic, she was lured to a house nearby and tortured, before having her head cut back to the spine.

The body of this vibrant 26-year-old woman was dumped in a wheelie bin at Ballarat Street, a stone’s throw from where I live now on the Ravenhill Road. Her two young children were reared by her parents, Frank and Bridie.

Michael O’Neill is the first Ulster-born Catholic to manage Northern Ireland for over 50 years. A middle class Ballymena Catholic, he was educated at the prestigious St Louis Grammar school along with my wife Emma. Their life experience is atypical. When Emma first came to Dungiven during our courtship, she was shocked at the fact soldiers and policemen were not served in the town’s shops.

Michael has been publicly trying to recruit Northern Irish Catholics who have previously rejected the notion of playing for the North. The fundamental problem he has is that this would require them to renounce their sense of identity. Everton’s Shane Duffy for example was brought up in Derry city and played Gaelic football for Colmcille’s.

He is an Irishman, not a Northerner. Which is why he has repeatedly stated he will never play for Northern Ireland.

Stoke’s Marc Wilson is from Aghagallon outside Portadown, a thriving GAA stronghold. He was a keen Gaelic footballer for school and club. Last week he flatly rejected Michael O’Neill’s plea. “I have always seen myself as an Ireland player and am happy to bide my time.”

A few days later, Derry man and Sunderland midfielder James McClean also rejected O’Neill’s offer of an immediate cap, saying, “If I don’t get called up by Ireland, I’ll live with that.” This week, he tweeted: “Following my dream, mind was never going to change, latest barrage of insults come right on cue.”

The reality is that the two cultures remain firmly segregated. Nigel Worthington, during his tenure as Northern Ireland manager, described the notion of a citizen from the north declaring for the south as ludicrous and a loophole.

Graham Luney, an influential journalist who writes for the Belfast Telegraph wrote, “We cannot afford to carry passengers who are dreaming of wearing the colours of another national team. Let players chase other countries if they want to.”

His newspaper routinely refers to the, “Londonderry-born McClean,” and the, “Londonderry-born Duffy.”
Michael O’Neill’s crusade is futile. Some follow the green, white and gold. Some the red, white and blue. It is far more than a flag.