You call it sectarianism here, I call it racism. If a black man is abused, you are not just abusing the colour of his skin, you are abusing his culture, his heritage, his background. It’s the exact same when I get called a Fenian, a pauper, a beggar, a tarrier. These are people with a sense of entitlement or superiority complex… – Neil Lennon,  November 2018

For the first time, the Football Association (FA) has decided to look into the racist abuse suffered by James McClean throughout his 7 years in English football. Surprisingly, nobody at the FA or racism group Kick It Out could join the dots between McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy and the abuse he takes at every single ground in the country. Cynically, it could be seen that the FA was shamed into action by the joint statement by Show Racism the Red Card Ireland, Show Racism the Red Card UK and the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland to both the Football Association to have a more robust approach to abuse faced by McClean.

This statement was released after the FA announced it was investigating an Instagram post by McClean in which he had the impudence, the audacity, the unmitigated gall to describe his abusers as “uneducated cavemen”.

The Stoke winger responded to news of the investigation by asking why there has been no condemnation of the “constant sectarian abuse, death threats, objects being thrown, chanting which is heard loud and clear every week.” For me, it is impossible to argue with any of the points he raises, sadly they are all too true, and all too real.

 

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Last season Huddersfield Town fans pelted him with missiles last year, which was widely circulated on social media. Match of the Day, however, opted not to show it and the FA refused to take any sanction against the Yorkshire Club. This clip is a useful example of the type of abuse directed at McClean by these “uneducated cavemen”.  This is an angry England rebelling against anyone who has dared to raise his head above the parapet, it’s a pointer for him to remember his place, not to be an Uppity Fenian, essentially love it or leave it.

McClean this season was joined in his refusal to wear the Poppy by Manchester United’s Serbian Midfielder Nemanja Matic. Matic due to British involvement in the NATO bombing of his Serbian town as a child.

Writing in the Irish Independent, Eamonn Sweeney described how “The coverage of Matic has been largely sympathetic with his explanation being published at length and without adverse comment in papers whose reaction to McClean had generally been along the lines of, “Grow up you stupid Paddy.” It’s as though the Continental is respected because he’s making the kind of intelligent and considered decision English papers don’t think an Irishman is capable of.”

This may seem far fetched, but compare and contrast the reactions to the same actions from two articles from the same newspaper…

It would be naive at best, but more likely negligent, to assume that in less than half a century, the anti-Irish sentiment that fuelled “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” signs to appear in windows of establishments across Britain would have dissipated. We live in a society in which intolerance is rife, with a resurgent British far-right rehashing the old slogans of “No Surrender” and “Fuck the Pope and/or IRA”. They’re coming from people, this time, with no memory or real understanding of The Troubles which inspired these slogans in the first place: a misplaced nostalgia for Albion’s dominance. Football often provides us with a great insight into the feelings and moods of a place and of a people. At a recent encounter with Spain, England fans were recorded singing “Fuck The Pope” to the tune of Baby Shark, and there was me thinking the tune couldn’t annoy me any more. Hilariously, they were singing it while frequenting an Irish bar, go figure…

God Save The Queen before England games is now accompanied by screams of NO SURRENDER, coming from the 1980s slogan of “No Surrender To The IRA”. And, much like the way in which the aforementioned Leicester fans sang it, there’s a palpable anger and venom to it’s singing, it is as if it is an act of rebellion against Britain’s multicultural make-up, in favour of a more traditional WASP society. We can see when the camera pans around, in a country in which 20% of the population aren’t white, the followers of the national team are almost exclusively white.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to believe this bigotry was just left on the terraces. I myself have experienced some of this, most memorably when coming out of Southwark Tube Station in a Celtic shirt, a passing cycling shouted “Fenian Bastard” at me, which ironically made me feel quite at home.

In writing this, I have asked friends and acquaintances studying in Britain about their experiences to see if my own were representative, sadly they were. The first response I received was from a student at the University of Manchester who told me how this very weekend in McDonald’s, a girl in her early twenties aggressively approached them and said “I bet Bobby Sands would’ve liked that cheeseburger.” A fellow University of Liverpool student was told to “Fuck off back to Ireland”, and called “an Irish Slag” by taxi driver for asking him to stop at an ATM for her to get cash out to pay him.

While not all those who I asked responded with incidents as vicious as this, nearly all reported snide & hurtful remarks that they had suffered. “It’s more the ignorance of people, like a very big lack of understanding towards sensitive issues in our past that they make stupid comments about,” was one fairly reflective comment. References to drunkenness and stupidity also seemed to be common place.

During ITV’s coverage of this year’s World Cup, Ian Wright decided to repeatedly demean and mock Roy Keane’s accent. The eye roll from Keane, while three Englishmen laughed uncontrollably at the funny Irishman and his strange accent is telling. Wright should have known better than this as he originally left punditry because he felt he was being used only for comic effect. Furthermore, as the son of Jamaican immigrants, I would assume his views on that accent being mocked, or one from the Indian subcontinent, for example, would be quite different. The Irish, for some reason, are fair game.

A schoolmate of mine who lives in London, Vittorio Angelone, while speaking on an episode of his The 42 Podcast, spoke of how it would be a nicer world to live in without the fear and assumption that he, and people like him feel that they are seen as “stupid, or uneducated, or drunk, or lazy, or just here for a laugh and that you don’t work hard… or that I am here just to be seen almost as like a court jester.” He refers to how Directors have asked actor friends of his to try their own (Irish) accents to make their characters seem more loose/uncivilised, as in the best way to represent these characteristics are with an Irish accent. He also touches upon something I often acutely feel myself, in that we aren’t taken seriously on the whole, and almost only listened to when making jokes, “just because I’m good craic doesn’t mean that I can’t put a shift in.”

He also speaks of how people are “surprised when he knows things”, which I have experienced acutely throughout my University of Liverpool experience, from both lecturers and fellow students. People are surprised that I can think on a deep level, or speak on issues that extend beyond Ireland. As an example, a classmate remarked “Oh wow, I didn’t think you’d be that clever.”

On a different occasion, a lecturer responded to a point I made with “That’s quite smart from you.” What did she mean by “you”, I queried in my own head for a while after. It’s inherently possible that these could both be innocent mistakes, but combined with the anecdotal evidence of practically every single Irish person to have ever lived in England, it’s probably fair to say it may be something deeper than this. Baring in mind these were our first meetings, what other conclusion could there be to draw other than shock that I didn’t fit into the stereotype of a stupid paddy who can only open his mouth to make a joke or to drink a pint. Added to this, James McClean has repeatedly and eloquently explained the rationale behind his refusal to wear the Poppy on his jersey, but these are ignored. He’s seen as nothing more as an anti-British Super Provo

Clearly, it would be a lie to state all people in England have a racist mindset towards the Irish. This is, of course, a country which has given many of us a home, a job or an education. The vast, vast majority are lovely people. However, in 2018 surely we can all agree that just one of these events would be one too many. The events outlined that I, and people I know have experienced show that clearly there is a problem which needs challenged and addressed as a matter of urgency. More so, care needs to be taken with words even when offence isn’t intended, they have an effect and carelessly trotting out ignorant stereotypes is rarely a good idea.

I was recently on The Chase, and my appearance promoted a flurry of less than complimentary tweets from the viewing public; and while I laughed most of them off, there was one in particular that stung.

I have 10 GCSEs and 3 A-Levels, I am studying at a Russell Group university and on an Erasmus Placement at the top ranked Univeristy in Spain, I can speak two languages and I am studying a third, I’ve been quoted in the Independent, appeared on ESPN and Irish Radio and also won £5,000 in the cash builder – but none of this mattered, I was “a thick mick”. My entire being and intelligence was reduced to my passport, my accent – My Irishness.

 

Featured image: James McClean by Michael Kranewitter, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 4.0