Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Republic's player poaching to blame for stay-away fans.

From yesterday's Tele.

Barack Obama and the Queen may have been recent visitors to Dublin, but the vast majority of local football supporters are giving it a bye-ball.
Thousands of Northern Ireland fans had been expected to travel to the Aviva stadium for tonight's Carling Nations Cup clash with the Republic, but now it's likely they will number in the low hundreds, with most supporters' clubs boycotting the match.
The impetus for fans to take this action came when the IFA imposed draconian travel restrictions and levied a £30 fee for coach travel to and from the game.
Digging a little deeper, though, it's clear that the boycott reflects growing disillusion among supporters with the arrangements surrounding the Carling Nations Cup - and even Northern Ireland's decision to participate in the first instance.
The Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs insists that its problem with the game is not just an expensive bus ticket; it maintains that the IFA did not listen to its advice in the run-up to the competition.
During the planning stages, the amalgamation recommended that only regular supporters should be permitted to attend Carling Cup games. The IFA chose to ignore that opinion and tickets for Northern Ireland's opening game with Scotland went on general sale.
After the match, footage emerged of an unsavoury incident, where a small number of spectators sang sectarian songs inside the Aviva stadium. Many supporters were outraged that their good name had been tarnished and wondered whether lax ticketing arrangements may have contributed.
A number of the most dedicated fans had refused to attend the Scotland game at all. They objected to the IFA's participation in a competition hosted by their near rivals, while the Republic continues to recruit players from Northern Ireland's youth teams.
In the past number of years, the FAI, which governs football in the south, has persuaded Northern Ireland underage players like Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and Shane Duffy to defect and the Republic recently selected Adam Barton, a Preston-based midfielder who played a friendly match at Windsor Park just months before.
Now the eligibility issue has come to the fore again, after it emerged that the FAI is actively attempting to recruit Shane Ferguson, a regular in the Northern Ireland U21s who broke into Newcastle United's first XI this season. This boycott is much more than an angry reaction to the peculiar arrangements put in place for one match: it is a display of unity and defiance from the fans.
Their team suffers a disadvantage which is unique in world football, with FIFA decreeing that players born in Northern Ireland can play for either Irish squad.
The Republic is clearly determined to exploit this situation by plundering as many promising youngsters as it can from the IFA's youth set-up.
These players invariably come from the nationalist community, with the result that football apartheid is slowly beginning to be established in Ireland.
Northern Ireland supporters are often unjustly maligned, in spite of the huge strides made in recent years to make the terraces fun and inclusive. Every time Neil Lennon is targeted in Scotland, the death-threat which caused him to quit international football is dragged up.
And after abuse from internet Manchester United fans drummed Darron Gibson off Twitter, pundits were quick to blame the Green and White Army - without a scrap of evidence. By observing tonight's boycott, Northern Ireland supporters will register a dignified protest against what they consider a serious injustice. They will also show admirable determination to avoid simmering resentments creating a potential flash-point in Dublin.
Any incidents at a high-tension fixture would be a serious setback for the IFA and it's campaign to see 'Football for All'.
There may be disappointment that Northern Ireland supporters will not attend the first 'Irish derby' since 1999, but the fans' decision to stay at home - and their reasons for doing so - should be respected.
Owen Polley is a Northern Ireland supporter and blogger

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Medvedev rolls them up and lets them down.

When either the President or Prime Minister of Russia wants to emphasise their liberal credentials they head to Skolkovo.  A business school, set to become heart of Moscow’s answer to Silicon Valley, it’s an emblem for the new Russia: educated, tech savvy, pro-business and punching its weight.

Something of a kerfuffle accompanied Dmitry Medvedev’s press conference, planned for Skolkovo this afternoon.  There was some expectation that the President would declare his hand and announce whether he would run for a second term, in next year’s election.

The conference followed hot on the heals of the announcement that Mikhail Prokorov, currently Russia’s third wealthiest billionaire, would lead Right Cause, the pro-business party which has backed Medvedev for the presidency, into December’s state Duma election.

Interesting choreography, but the journalists who flocked to the Moscow Management School were disappointed.  The President said that it is ‘too soon’ to announce his intentions, but the decision will come before long. 

So, predictably, the speculation continues.  Putin, Medvedev or even a third party, as suggested by the Centre for Political Information.    Some commentators believe that the answer won’t come until December, after the result of the Duma elections.  

Monday, 16 May 2011

Celebrate the Lyric - new jewel in Belfast's cultural crown.

My column from Saturday's News Letter.

As last week’s election count ground on through Friday evening, I took a much needed break from the coverage to visit the reopened Lyric Theatre in Belfast.  It’s been closed for the past year or so, as the old building was more or less rebuilt from the ground up and replaced by a gleaming, modern venue costing £18.1 million. 

The Department of Culture, Arts and Lesiure stumped up about half of that total.  A hefty price tag, but it seems to be money well spent. 

The lack of sound-proofing at the old Lyric was a particular irritation, with the roar of traffic from Stranmillis Embankment, car alarms and the like constantly intruding on performances.  Nothing quite explodes the illusion that you are in say, 7th century Denmark, like the cheesy jingle of an ice cream van.

There are no such issues with the new theatre.  The heavy wooden panels surrounding the auditorium insulate it perfectly from the outside world.  The first production in the reopened building is Arthur Miller’s drama, The Crucible, and it looks great, on a state of the art stage, with clever lighting and a convincing set.

It is a good choice of play for election season too.  Miller’s account of the Salem witch-hunts is full of political symbolism.   It may have been written as an allegory for McCarthyism, when thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathisers, but it has things to say about intolerance and hysteria which could equally be applied to Northern Ireland.

That’s a mark of good writing and good drama.  It stays fresh and it has the power to make us re-examine our attitudes and assumptions, long after it was written, in a different country and a different context. 

It’s a huge asset to Belfast to have a professional company which can really bring a play like The Crucible to life for audiences in Northern Ireland.  And it’s important that the Players have a world class home like the new Lyric Theatre. 

There’s a danger that when things get tight financially, cultural projects are always the ones which miss out on much needed resources.  It’s often presented as if any money which culture does bag comes at the expense of hospitals or schools. 

The Lyric’s reopening reminds us of the real value which the arts bring to our society and to the local economy.  It is a stunning building, which will stage quality productions and act as a magnet for talented and creative people.  That, in turn, will attract visitors to Belfast. 

Without investment in facilities like the Lyric and the refurbished Ulster Museum, Northern Ireland’s tourist industry will struggle to grow.  It’s all very well urging people to visit and spend money in our hotels and restaurants, but we’ve got to give them something to do while they’re here and to tell their friends and family about when they get home. 

So, rather than resent every penny which is spent on the arts, let’s celebrate a new jewel in Belfast’s cultural crown and hope that many more are added in the future.  

Sunday, 15 May 2011

What would happen to the Brits if Scotland were independent?

A nice column today from David Mitchell in today's Observer.  The comedian skewers a neglected issue raised by the spectre of Scottish independence.  How would us Brits feel, deprived of our country?

When I appeared on an episode of Question Time broadcast from Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, the issue of Scottish independence came up. One of my fellow panellists, the SNP deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, was at pains to make clear that her party had nothing against England and were admirers of that country. 
What I didn't say in response, what I've kicked myself for not expressing ever since, was: "Yes but you've got it in for Britain. You may be happily in cahoots with the morris-dancing English and the Eisteddfod-organising Welsh, but my country, the Britain of London where I now live, of Swansea, my mother's home town where I spent a lot of time as a child, and of Galloway, where my paternal grandparents lived, is something you want to destroy. I'm British, I care about this and I've a hunch I'm not the only one." 
I'm slightly embarrassed to admit to this British patriotism. The Scottish equivalent feels more politically correct, focused as it is on cultural distinctiveness and national self-determination. No Scottish state has existed for hundreds of years so, unlike Britain, its image is untainted by actions, by realpolitik and compromise, by the slave trade and colonialism. But a desire for Scottish independence is no more rational than a desire to preserve the union, so either both desires should be ignored or both taken into account. 
I don't think I should get a vote in a referendum on Scottish independence – I understand why that's a decision that would have to be taken by those living in Scotland. Otherwise, it would be like calling a Europe-wide vote on whether the UK should adopt the euro. 
Scotland's fate mustn't be decided by people who consider themselves to be primarily English, Welsh or Northern Irish. But I'm sad that, as a result, most of those whose emotional investment is in the union, we children of this potential divorce, won't have a say.
If Scotland ever goes it alone, those buoyed up as their sense of nationality gains accompanying sovereignty might take note of, and even fleetingly mourn, the fact that there are losers in that arrangement, too, and I'm not talking about oil revenues. The British will have lost their country.
It's not an unprecedented state of mind to which Mitchell refers.  Many citizens of the former Yugoslavia, for instance, mourn their multi-national state and their multinational identity.   Let's hope that there is no opportunity for a similar sense of loss in the United Kingdom. The Scots, Welsh, English and Irish nations can be accommodated within the UK in a way that is simply not possible the other way about.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Northern Ireland in Serbia - 4-4-2 Magazine

Time for a little shameless self-promotion, because today is rather an exciting day for me. 

Yes, we are on the eve of two elections and a referendum.  Yes, Northern Ireland is ninety years old to the day.  Yes, it’s Rory McIlroy’s birthday.  All landmark events - but none quite so compelling for me personally as the publication of my first article in FourFourTwo magazine. 

Let me explain.  I grew up as a football mad kid on a diet of football magazines.   You could map my development by these changing titles.  From Roy of the Rovers I graduated to Shoot magazine, sneering at those who preferred its rival Match, which I considered far too lightweight. 

Shoot was gradually supplanted by the edgier content of 90 Minutes, as I approached my teenage years.  During adolescence I experimented with fanzine inspired monthly When Saturday Comes and the statto’s bible, World Soccer, but I was more often immersed in the glossy pages of FourFourTwo.
You can see the significance I’m sure.

Anyway the article is a four page feature on Northern Ireland fans’ trip to Serbia.  The game was played in Belgrade, behind closed doors but with just over 200 away supporters in attendance. 

June's issue is available now.