By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Pressure from republicans as well as relatives of people shot dead by the RUC and the local community has forced a West Belfast amateur soccer club to cancel a match against an RUC team.
The Sunday Tribune in Dublin alleged that pressure to cancel the fixture also came from the IRA.
In a row that caused a week of intense controversy, the club had voted by 108 votes to 79 to play the game against the RUC — but after several more days of threatened boycotts and other opposition, it reversed its decision.
It’s not the first time that Donegal Celtic, located in the mainly nationalist Lenadoon area of West Belfast, has been put in this difficult situation, and it could find itself facing the same difficulty within weeks.
Donegal Celtic, or "D.C.," as it’s known in the area, had been drawn to play the RUC in the semifinal of the Steel & Sons Cup. At first it agreed to take part in the match (on the grounds that this was a sporting, not a political, fixture) despite lobbying from the Relatives for Justice group.
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The Belfast nationalist newspaper the Irish News had strongly supported taking part, while the Andersonstown News was opposed. Letters to the editor in the Irish News were overwhelmingly in favor of the game going forward.
The SDLP said it was up to the club alone, while Sinn Fein was adamantly opposed on grounds that it lent the RUC legitimacy.
Relatives for Justice said agreeing to play the match was an insult to those killed by the RUC, for which no policeman has ever spent a day in jail.
D.C. made the announcement the day before the match was due to be played, saying they had only taken their decision with reluctance after "unbearable pressure" had been placed on club members and its committee.
The three-page club statement announcing the decision said the club had no agenda, political or otherwise, but it was sensitive to local views and had instituted a process of consulting local people.
The statement said the club knew whatever it decided would upset some, but it had hoped its ruling would be accepted. That hope had not been realized, it said. Rather it provoked strong views within the local community and patrons.
This had taken its toll on committee members and especially the players, who had been thrown into the eye of the storm. The statement said the pressure was unfair, unreasonable, unrelenting and became unbearable, leading it to conclude it could not be party to a decision that would cause bitterness and division within the club.
Regrettably it came to the conclusion that it would withdraw from the game.
The decision was used by unionists to criticize Sinn Fein, accusing republicans of using threats of violence to persuade the club to change its mind. Claims that club members were preparing to resign, and that IRA members had visited homes threatening to kneecap players, have been denied by the D.C. committee.
The community, even families, were split by the row. Some republicans believe it would have been better to allow the club to play its game. Others said it would have sent confused signals to the Patten Commission on Policing, and would have been used by the RUC as evidence that the force is not unacceptable to nationalists.