England play the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on 7th June in a friendly international.
For reasons that have never been fully explained, the last time England played in Ireland the match was abandoned with some disorder occurring in the English end. It is has certainly never been clear to me why the Irish police were unable to restore order, or what was so terrifying about England's away support that the game could not be completed. As the researcher Larry O'Hara wrote at the time, claims that the neo-Nazi group Combat 18 had incited a riot were fanciful - no one has ever been able to pinpoint any C18 members in the ground on that occasion.
It says much about the times we are living in that an enormous effort has begun by the football authorities to dissuade England fans from singing 'No Surrender to the IRA' at the Dublin match. This includes the astonishing claim that "England could be banned from the next World Cup under a new Fifa initiative if their fans continue to chant anti-IRA slogans at matches". At least some of this seems to come from Piara Powar (who readers of some vintage will remember from the Newham Monitoring Project) a member of Football Against Racism in Europe and FIFA's task force against racism and discrimination. One might wonder how FIFA has the moral status to deliberate on anything - what is it doing about the discrimination faced by those building its stadiums for Qatar 2022? And that is without even beginning to discuss the corruption accusations that have dogged it for many years.
If people want to sing songs against a terrorist group, that whatever people's views on the Northern Ireland question, did some bad things, I can't really get too excited about it. Each to his own. Piara Powar however, has got his dander up, telling the Telegraph last Wednesday that he may be asked to attend the game to monitor fans chanting:
"No Surrender To The IRA" comes from a point which is extreme nationalism. It's about conflict between two states. That then would be reported. We would be making our reports as often as our experts feel there is a case to answer"
It is hard to think of a more textbook example of how football supporters become disillusioned, not just with those running the game, but the political activists who come into it to supposedly to do good. Piara Powar may consider anti-IRA songs to be about 'extreme nationalism' - others do not. Why is his view, or those of his 'experts' worth more than anybody else's? Getting into the detail of his position it does not impress. Bizarrely his quote seems to portray the IRA as in some way representing one of two states - presumably Ireland. Try telling that to the government in Dublin, whose measures against the IRA were for decades often harsher than anything decreed from London or Belfast. Far from representing the whole of Ireland, the IRA could be just as accurately described as representing a minority of a minority - the Catholic population in Northern Ireland.
This week we have already seen Home Secretary Theresa May bandying around the word extremism, and the need to establish tougher legislation to address it, whilst unable to define what it actually means in practice. Now we are expected to be concerned about 'extreme nationalism' in the form of songs against a terrorist group. Does that mean people can be jailed for supporting Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, yet football fans could be sanctioned for singing songs against them? Or is it just the IRA - a terrorist group with rusting guns - that we are concerned about?
This matters, because such declarations, be it from those governing the country or those running football has repercussions for the liberty of our citizens. Earlier this year Glasgow Rangers fan Scott Lamont was jailed for four months for singing 'The Billy Boys' whilst on his way to an Auld Firm game. An Auld Firm match where thousands will have sung the Billy Boys, and thousands of Celtic fans will have declared support for Irish Republicanism, and sang songs in praise of, you guessed it, the IRA.
Can anyone, perhaps Piara Powar or Theresa May, publish a list of songs football supporters are allowed to sing, and those they are not?