How Northern Ireland wiped out sectarianism – and what Rangers and Celtic can learn from them
THE man who spearheaded an award-winning campaign to eradicate sectarianism at Northern Ireland matches has warned UEFA punishments alone won’t rid the Scottish game of the age-old problem and urged Celtic and Rangers to consider taking alternative action.
Irish Football Association (IFA) director Michael Boyd was the driving force behind the Football for All initiative that was launched back in 2000 following a disturbing rise in bigoted chanting and racist abuse at international games as well as an alarming fall in attendances.
The ambitious project – which saw Boyd enlist the backing of many of the fans who had been responsible for creating such a poisonous atmosphere at their fixtures – was a resounding success which had a huge impact both on and off the park. Crowds increased and the performances of the national team also improved.
The Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs received the prestigious Brussels International Supporters Award from UEFA and EU representatives before a game against Spain in Belfast in 2006 – which the home team won 3-2 – for their involvement in the campaign.
Boyd accepts the scale and complexity of the issue is far greater in this country than in his homeland. However, he believes that both Celtic and Rangers could achieve the same sort of positive results as the IFA by actively engaging with their followers and involving them closely in their efforts to stamp out sectarianism.
Rangers were hit with a second UEFA punishment – they will once again have to leave at least 3,000 seats empty at Ibrox in their opening Europa League match against Feyenoord at Ibrox next month – for “racist behaviour” by their fans in the space of a week on Friday.
The Govan outfit issued a statement urging supporters who are determined to chant sectarian songs to “stay away”. They have also declined tickets for their first Group G away game against Young Boys in Switzerland next month.
Boyd feels the disciplinary action could help to bring about long overdue change. However, he is convinced there are other far more effective strategies worth pursuing.
“For me, UEFA being stronger and addressing issues around racism and sectarianism is good,” he said. “But if you really want to win hearts and minds there has to be really strong community engagement and supporter engagement.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes some disciplinary action to stimulate and be a catalyst for change. But hearts and minds won’t be won over by sanctions and disciplinary action. There has to be education and a community element to it based on our experience.
“I am sure Celtic and Rangers invest in those things. Our experience in that area shows that fan engagement works far better than discipline and increased stewarding and sanctions.”
Boyd recalled how football in Northern Ireland reached a crisis point similar to the one that the Scottish game is currently facing during a home game against world champions France in 1999 and outlined how the IFA responded.
“We didn’t sell the ground out against France,” said Boyd. “It was an embarrassment. I was there as a supporter. Young kids in front of me were singing The Billy Boys, with the line ‘we’re up to our necks in Fenian blood’.
“I was there with my girlfriend. I said to her: ‘This is a disgrace. In this day and age this shouldn’t be happening’. There was a lot of that kind of thing back then. There were other songs as well as The Billy Boys which caused offence. One of the linesman that night was also targeted for racist abuse.
“After I joined the IFA, I worked with supporters’ clubs and community groups to begin with. I was very hands on. I went out to meet people. We also invited the Northern Ireland fans into the IFA office. There were only 12 supporters’ clubs at that time. They all sent in two representatives each.
“For the first half an hour they just shouted at me. I kept trying to bring them back to the Football For All campaign and the issue of sectarianism at international games. At the end of the night they said they would take it away and look at it. They came back a week later and said they were going to endorse it. That was a major moment.
“The Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs said that 10 of their clubs were behind it and two weren’t. What they did was to say those two couldn’t be part of the organisation if they didn’t endorse it. They effectively expelled them. They showed really good leadership.
“A lot of my work was done in partnership with that group. I was able to build trust with them. We went on this amazing journey together. Over the next six years we went from having 4,000 at games to selling matches out regularly. They went to having 50 supporters’ clubs worldwide because there was a transformation happening in the stands. It was a really positive thing.
“What I probably did well was working in consultation with the fans’ groups. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Supporters groups aren’t consulted as well as they could be. The fans had an instrumental voice. I would say 90 per cent of the things we implemented were fan driven. The success of our campaign was that it was supporter driven.”
Rangers ultras group The Union Bears – who were barred from the Legia Warsaw game and are set to miss the Feyenoord match – issued a defiant statement last week hitting out at the Ibrox hierarchy and denying their chants at the St Joseph’s qualifier in July had been racist.
Boyd recalled how a desire to see the Northern Ireland team enjoy success ultimately led to a change in attitude by the hardcore supporters who were intent on singing sectarian songs.
“You have to go out and meet the groups who see nothing wrong in it,” he said. “I had loads of meetings like that. I remember sitting across the table from well-educated guys with good jobs who were telling me ‘it’s a lot of nonsense, we’ll sing what we want’.
“But what I was doing there was going out into the community, having meetings with all sorts of characters, trying to explain to them that the reason we want this to work is because it strengthens Northern Ireland football.
“I didn’t always win the argument, but a lot of the time I did. Where I won was pointing out the 1958, 1982 and 1986 World Cup squads were all 50/50 Catholic/Protestant.
“I asked how they expected the players who are trying to do their best for Northern Ireland to feel if they sang anti-Catholic songs. Very rarely did anybody have a counter argument to that that was worthy. In fact, they never did.”
Boyd continued: “You have to have difficult conversations and go to difficult areas and talk to these people. Now some of our biggest Football For All supporters are those people who were saying ‘we’ll sing what we want’. When you convert those people they become your biggest champions.
“You don’t convert them all, but the ones you do convert carry a lot of sway in certain circles. If you don’t go and talk to them you can’t expect them to get the message. You have to go out on the ground and meet people.”
The results of the Football For All campaign have been startling both in the stands and on the pitch. Sectarianism is now rare at internationals and Northern Ireland reached their first tournament finals in 30 years when they qualified for Euro 2016. They went on to make the last 16.
“When you go to a Northern Ireland game now it is very unusual to hear any sectarian comments or songs,” said Boyd. “Occasionally you will get the odd drunk person who will try to start something up. They will either be dealt with by the stewards or drowned out by the people around them.
“But in general when you go to a match it will be a brilliant experience. I take my daughters to the games now. I wouldn’t do that if there was any chance of it being a negative experience. In general, the games now are pretty inclusive, pretty family-friendly and a fun experience for everybody. It’s been an amazing transformation.”
He continued: “The most incredible experience I ever had was in France when we were playing Ukraine in Lyon. I looked around the stadium and there were more people there than you could fit inside Windsor Park. They were all there decked out in green. It felt like a home game.
“I didn’t hear one sectarian comment. And they were all super passionate. Northern Ireland beat Ukraine 2-0. That is what happens when you get it right.”