On the northern unionist fringe of Newry, under the hills of the Irish republican heartland of South Armagh, there is a new-found pride among those who pledge allegiance to the team that flies the Red Hand of Ulster flag rather than the Irish tricolour.
In this nationalist-dominated border city, followers of Northern Ireland have resurrected a supporters’ club defunct since the north’s glory years of the 1980s when Billy Bingham’s sides qualified for two successive World Cups. As both “Irelands” prepare for a green invasion of France, Northern Ireland fans from the loyalist Shandon Park district are preparing for their first tournament since Mexico 1986.
Inside the revamped Mourne Country Park hotel, which was devastated in a massive IRA bomb in the early 1990s, the Shandon Park resident Gareth Holmes produces an image from his phone to emphasise the cross-community nature of the international side he has followed since he was a boy. It is a picture of the Newry-born Catholic Pat Jennings, after George Best perhaps one of the most instantly recognised Irish players in world football. The face of the former Spurs and Arsenal goalkeeper is superimposed on a green, white and blue banner with the legend “Newry Northern Ireland Supporters Club” across it.
Holmes clicks on the image to widen it, expressing frustration that the banner has not been finished. “Big Pat is a local hero and we made him an honorary member of the club when it got started up again. He represents everything good about Northern Ireland football and along with another local player, Colin Clarke from Bessbrook, they are our icons. I just hope the Jennings banner will be ready before we go.”
The 34-year-old civil servant was one of those who helped revive the Newry Northern Ireland Supporters club over the past decade. Fifteen club members including his friend Colin Brown have received their tickets for the side’s group games in Nice, Lyon and Paris.
“I remember contacting the old chairman of the club and he handed over the books to us, including a bank book that still had money in it from the 1980s,” Holmes says. “As the team improved there has been massive interest in the club, so much so that we have had to cap membership at 50. There was a big spike in applications as we looked set to qualify for the Euros, but we made sure the fans who kept following Northern Ireland through the grim times got to France.”
He recalls attending one of the lowest nights of Northern Irish football when Luxembourg defeated Michael O’Neill’s side 3-2 in September 2013. “There was no covering over their stadium and it was pouring down with rain on us. I was thinking as the final whistle blew: ‘We have been beaten by butchers, milkmen and postmen and I’m soaked here to the skin. I must be mad.’ But looking back now it makes going to France all the more worthwhile when you recall those dark nights of the soul watching Northern Ireland.”
Holmes and Brown accept that in a city 80% Catholic-Nationalist and steeped in republican history, the overwhelming majority of local fans will be supporting the Republic of Ireland at the Euros. Given the binary sectarian nature of Northern Ireland society, across the entire region almost all unionists support Northern Ireland and most nationalists follow the Republic. Brown, however, believes it is becoming easier to support Northern Ireland openly in Newry even though most unionists do not tend to socialise in the city centre.
“There is a pound shop in the heart of Newry that is selling tricolours and Red Hand of Ulster flags for the tournament,” he says. “Ten years ago that would have been unheard of, as would anyone walking about the town in a Northern Ireland top. You see kids now wearing Northern Ireland shirts as well as others in Republic tops.
“Things are definitely more relaxed now. A lot of that has to do with the way the Irish Football Association has reached out to schools from all sides and involved kids from every part of the community in local football. But there always were Catholics who supported Northern Ireland, older guys from the Best and Jennings era who have come back to support the team again.”
At the southern end of Newry, close to the canal, the Republic of Ireland and Celtic supporter Michael Lynch believes that if the two sets of fans meet en route there will be no trouble. “When we beat Northern Ireland in a friendly game 5-0 a few years ago at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin we ran into some of their supporters at the Apple Green Services station on the motorway,” he says. “There was a bit of banter and slagging but it wasn’t like the English hoolies – no one was throwing chairs at each other. It will be exactly like that in France if the two sets of fans come cross each other: banter but no trouble.”
Lynch, however, still hopes Northern Ireland do not progress further than the first stage in France. “It’s all about bragging rights and in this case it’s a bit like a derby,” he says. “I want to come into work when I get back from France to wind up the Northern Ireland supporters for going out early because I genuinely believe that with such Premier League talent and Martin O’Neill as manager that we can go far in this tournament.”
Mark Quinn, who is travelling with Lynch to support the Republic, is more magnanimous about Northern Ireland’s prospects. “Unlike Michael I don’t mind if they go further in the tournament,” the 26-year-old student says.
“It’s not Northern Ireland that gets on my goat, but England. I just hope England flop because if they were to win the whole thing you would never hear the end of it. The English media never shuts up about 1966 and all that. So imagine if they won the Euros …”
Back in the northern end of Newry Holmes and Brown differ over their team’s chances of staying in the tournament after the first phase of matches. “I think it will be a glorious failure,” Holmes says, gloomily reflecting his experience as a witness to some of Northern Ireland’s inglorious games past. “We will probably beat the Germans and lose to Poland and Ukraine, but I hope not of course. The key thing is not to lose the first game.”
Brown is more upbeat about Michael O’Neill’s team springing a surprise. “I’m a pessimist by nature, but I have a funny feeling we might just squeeze through to the second stage, although I doubt the wife will let me stay on,” he says. “I will have to watch the remaining games down at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast at our local fanzone.”
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