By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — International soccer in Northern Ireland is under a dark cloud of sectarianism after its most talented player, Neil Lennon, announced his retirement after receiving a loyalist death threat.
Lennon, who’s 31, was told, just two hours of the start of a friendly match against Cyprus last Wednesday, that a phone threat to shoot him dead on the pitch at Windsor Park, Belfast, had been received by the BBC on behalf of the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
After consulting his family, who, unlike Lennon still live in his hometown of Lurgan, Co. Armagh, the Glasgow Celtic midfielder left the team, which he was to captain, and later announced his retirement from international soccer.
Lurgan is a hotbed of LVF activity. Last September, journalist Martin O’Hagan was gunned down there in front of his wife, and in March 1999 human rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson was blown up by a LVF/UDA gang at her home in the town.
Agreed soccer rules preclude Lennon from switching to the Republic of Ireland.
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“It’s a real pity that it all has to end like this,” Lennon said last week. “Obviously, I can’t put them [his family] through this every time. So I’ve thought long and hard about it and I’ve decided that I probably won’t be going back to play for Northern Ireland.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened. I don’t want to keep being the focus of media attention for the wrong reasons. . . . I’ve enjoyed my career at an international level, but it’s time to say enough’s enough.”
Some loyalists criticized Lennon for pulling out, claiming the threat was a hoax. Other observers, however, point out that had he played, the newspapers would have interpreted it as a “defiant gesture” to the LVF, putting Lennon’s family in even greater danger.
Graffiti showing a man hanging from a noose has appeared in Lurgan, near Lennon’s home, bearing the slogan “Neil Lennon, RIP”. Lurgan is a notoriously divided town where the two communities rarely mingle.
Attempts are being made to entice the soccer star back into the team, but it seems likely he will resist them. The day after the match, the threat was denied by the LVF, with some loyalists even claiming the police had deliberately played up the danger to embarrass them.
The threatening phone call was made without a code word, but the police chose to treat it seriously and passed the message onto Lennon at the team’s hotel in Templepatrick, Co. Antrim.
“We all thought this sort of thing was behind us, but it’s still there,” said manager Sammy McIlroy. “We won’t let them beat us. Northern Ireland football will come through this.”
Lennon has been the target of sectarian abuse in the past because he is a Catholic and plays for Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. He once also said during an interview that, should there be an agreed 32-county all-Ireland soccer team, he would consider joining it.
In February last year, he was booed by a section of the crowd as he ran out onto the pitch for the first time since joining Celtic. He considered retiring then but was persuaded to stay on.
The soccer scene in Northern Ireland is notoriously sectarian. The verbal abuse endured by the Republic of Ireland five years ago sparked Belfast playwright Marie Jones to write “A Night in November” about a fan who switches sides after listening to sectarian loyalist chants at one match.
The Irish Football Association, which runs soccer in Northern Ireland, has sponsored a “Give Sectarianism the Boot” campaign, but even so there are still racist and anti-Irish chants and songs at international games, held in a staunchly Protestant part of Belfast.
At last Wednesday’s match, for example, PA messages against sectarianism were booed by some in the crowd and songs referring to Northern Ireland fans as a “Protestant army” were sung.
In the past, a favorite song for Northern Ireland fans has been “The Billy Boys,” dating back to an anti-Catholic “razor gang” in 1930s Glasgow led by Billy Fullerton. Its chorus runs: “We’re up to our necks in Fenian blood. Surrender or you die.”
Despite the obvious reasons for taking the LVF threat seriously, some loyalist spokesmen were angry with Lennon for not playing on. John White who speaks for the self-styled Ulster Political Research Group, which “offers political advice” to the UDA, said: “I think his reaction was ridiculous, given that thousands of people in Northern Ireland live with real threats to their lives and still carry on their work.
“I think what he’s done has been very damaging to community relations in Northern Ireland and has certainly created a bad image,” added White, who also accused Lennon of “folding” and of “letting the people of Northern Ireland down.”
These views were echoed, amongst others, by Billy Hutchinson, an assemblyman for the Progressive Unionists, which represents the views of the UVF, who asked whether Lennon would have played for Celtic if there had been death threats against him. “I think the answer is yes,” he said. “People in this country are under threat every day.”