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Bridge over Troubled Water
Richard Demak
November 25, 1991
In Northern Ireland, people are working to make sports a common denominator for Protestants and Catholics
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November 25, 1991

Bridge Over Troubled Water

In Northern Ireland, people are working to make sports a common denominator for Protestants and Catholics

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Mrs. McKee's students can wear their soccer jerseys to class on any day but Wednesday. On Wednesday afternoons the 10- and 11-year-olds in her class, from Beechfield primary school, get together with the boys in Miss McKenna's class, from St. Matthew's primary school across the street. Beryl McKee came up with the rule last year after she and Maria McKenna took their two classes on a field trip together. "People jeered them from both sides," says McKee. "The only way they knew we were a mixed group was from the boys' jerseys." The group was mixed: All of McKee's students were Protestant, and all of McKenna's were Catholic. And they were jeered because Beechfield and St. Matthew's are in the Ballymacarrett section of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In Belfast, the soccer jersey a person chooses brands the wearer as Protestant or Catholic, because rooting interests are linked to religious affiliations. A jersey from Glasgow Rangers, in the Scottish League, is a declaration of Protestant or Unionist sympathies; a jersey from Glasgow Celtic is the uniform of a Catholic or a Nationalist. When McKee's and McKenna's students dress alike, they're camouflaged—two anonymous classes on a field trip. When they wear soccer jerseys, their allegiances become obvious, inciting the hostilities of other Protestants and Catholics. McKee thought her program of combined classes was provocative enough without the children wearing their tribes on their backs.

Belfast is a place where every gesture is a symbol and neutrality does not exist. Children attend either Catholic schools or state (Protestant) schools; street addresses are either on Catholic blocks or Protestant ones; pubs are either allied with Unionist organizations or Nationalist ones. Even curbs and lampposts have affiliations: In the Catholic ghettos they're painted the green, gold and white of the Republic of Ireland; in the Protestant ghettos they're painted the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.

Since it's more complicated to determine the sensibilities of a person than it is of a lamppost, the residents of Belfast have developed codes to distinguish friend from foe. Jonathan Smyth, one of the Protestant boys from Beechfield, says, "Someone will walk by you in a Catholic neighborhood and say, 'Hail Mary full of grace'—it's a Catholic prayer. And then if you don't know how to finish it, he'll beat your head in."

Sports—rife with gestures and symbols and pitting one side against another—have naturally been tugged at by both camps in Northern Ireland. Yet while some sports have been commandeered by Unionists or Nationalists, whenever an athlete or team has been able to escape appropriation by one side or the other, it has flourished. Protestants and Catholics, who agreed on nothing else, have supported the same athlete or team. Not only have soccer fields and boxing arenas been places for people in Northern Ireland to let off steam, but they have also been a home for those who wanted to go someplace where every word they uttered wasn't heard as a war cry.

To much of the world the battles in Northern Ireland appear to be between Protestants and Catholics, or between British security forces and the Irish Republican Army. But to the people of Northern Ireland, the Troubles (as the natives understatedly call them) are a war between poor people from one neighborhood and poor people from another neighborhood.

For those people in Belfast's middle class, Protestant and Catholic alike, the Troubles are an inconvenience. They mean having to plan a route that bypasses Ballymacarrett or West Belfast when invited to dinner across town. "Professional people and the middle class at the end of the day give no thought to this," says Dusty Miller, president of the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, who lives in middle-class South Belfast. "The Troubles are at the working class, where people are manipulated by interest groups. When your everyday life has been led trying to keep your sanity, and body and soul together, it's easy to see how you could be manipulated."

Ballymacarrett is a working-class community in which many of the residents are not working—unemployment is 30%. Most of the students at Beechfield and St. Matthew's are from single-parent families, and 90% of the children at both schools receive free meals through government assistance.

Paramilitary organizations, such as the IRA and the militant branches of the Ulster Defence Association or the Ulster Volunteer Force, have found fertile ground for their recruiting campaign in the poverty and unemployment in Ballymacarrett. When you tour the neighborhood, any of the children in McKee's class or McKenna's class can guide you to the local paramilitary headquarters as though it were the Kiwanis or Rotary. According to community leaders, one quarter of the children at Beechfield and St. Matthew's have family members involved in paramilitary groups.

Gerry Armstrong, a member of the 1982 and '86 Northern Ireland World Cup soccer teams, remembers what it was like when he grew up in West Belfast during the '60s and '70s. "There were no youth clubs, no facilities, nowhere to go," Armstrong says. "You were bound to be lured into the political terrorist side of things."

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