As anyone who has witnessed the rowdiness of European soccer matches will agree, it is a popular error to suppose that sports bring people together. The current controversy in Belfast over the cancellation of the soccer match between Donegal Celtic and a squad representing the Royal Ulster Constabulary is a classic example of how often sports have the opposite effect, usually because they get mixed up with politics.
In this case, the West Belfast team, after voting overwhelmingly to play the police, was forced to back out following criticism from local Sinn Fein leaders and others. According to some reports, the criticism was backed up by threats when members of the club received visits from the IRA.
Sinn Fein has landed itself in the middle of a disaster, politically speaking. While the RUC is not exactly the most popular body of men on the Falls, most Catholics see no harm in the football match, if the nationalist Irish News letters columns is a reliable indication. Letters to the paper, which itself has supported the contest, have been running 14 to 1 in favor of the game going ahead.
Playing a game against an institution in no way implies approval of it. But this is the second time that the Shinners have bungled recently. Shortly before the football dispute, they rejected an offer of talks with the RUC’s Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan.
They are acting more like unionists every day.
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The time for this kind of politics is long gone in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein, of all parties, should realize it. Its leaders spent years trying to get unionists to acknowledge their existence and engage in dialogue. In spurning the offer of talks with Flanagan they are surely contradicting themselves. Meanwhile, their tactics in relation to Donegal Celtic make them look like bullies who have yet to accept the norms of ordinary politics.
For the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, to assert that "no nationalist" and "no democrat" could have anything to do with the RUC is absurd. Members of the governing Labor Party, the Irish government and the SDLP, among others, deal on a regular basis with the police. And they have all been hailed at different times by Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders for the positive role they have played in the peace process.
Rhetoric is most definitely getting in the way of reality here.
Sinn Fein should be more savvy than that. It know that the process in which it is now engaged is not about making such absolute statements to try and enforce absolute demands. The process is about compromise, and learning to live with differences. It is also about tolerance.
That is, it’s a whole different ballgame now. So for Sinn Fein, it’s time to "play up, play up and play the game."