07/07/2015 07:27 BST | Updated 05/07/2016 06:59 BST

Kicking Racism out of Football - and East Belfast

A local football club made headlines this week, following an incident where a Confederate flag was hoisted outside the home of a young, black footballer. When the team in question, East Belfast Football Club, were alerted to this, they went to the player's house, and removed the flag. The team then uploaded a video and explained the impetus for doing this.

The video is available to view on the Club's Facebook page.

The club, and in particular, the coach, Ryan Ward, who removed the flag, have been widely praised across social media, for showing solidarity with the young player, in the face of criticism from some, who see the flag as historical, and not racist.

However, given the debates which are raging on the other side of the Atlantic, it is clear that the Confederate flag, like all flags, is more than a piece of cloth. It has symbolic capital, which some see as a source of pride and heritage, and others see as representing historical racism and oppression.

The law in Northern Ireland has struggled to adequately respond to the ways which we use flags here. A policy document in 2005 noted that:

"The use of flags in instances such as celebration or festivity are not normally an issue. However, the use of flags for other more sinister purposes is of more concern and is unacceptable in a peaceful and tolerant society."
(The Joint Protocol in Relation to Flags Flown in Public Areas 2005).

East Belfast F.C. knew that placing a Confederate flag directly outside the home of a young black footballer, constituted a "sinister", and not "festive" use of the flag. Such an act shows that 'civil society', for which we can read, 'ordinary people', can step in where politics has failed.

Racist incidents have steadily increased in Northern Ireland, since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Local academic Robbie McVeigh describes the experiences of ethnic minorities in some areas of the region as "Living the peace process in reverse" (2015).

However, despite this, the Northern Ireland Executive have not produced a strategy to address the very real issue of racism. Critics would assert that the government continues to legislate for an outdated, "two-community" model (i.e. Unionists and Nationalists), and ignore the demographic changes which E.U. membership, and peace, have brought. The Guardian recently reported that there are up to 3 race-related incidents reported each day, in NI.

Such worrying mismanagement at a national level does not, however, translate into similar neglect at the grassroots. Quite the opposite. Some of the smaller, political parties are responsible for organising rallies and meetings in order to address the concerns of current residents and newly arriving, migrant families.

William Ennis, representative for the Progressive Unionist Party in East Belfast, says that, "The prompt removal of the confederate flag shows the true East Belfast." In reference to East Belfast being largely a working class, Loyalist area, Ennis adds, "One cannot be a loyalist and a racist. The Union flags design symbolises the union of multiple peoples".

Sport has the potential to build links within and across communities, both here, and internationally. A recent project, undertaken by Crusaders and Newington F.C.s, though 'Mes Que Un Club' - used "sport as a tool for social change". Crusaders players are from a Unionist background, Newington's from a Nationalist one. They run a joint project based in Seaview.

It has run a number of sports based projects which have addressed many issues including sectarianism and good relations. It has been funded under the Peace Programme amongst a range of funders and has successfully broken down barriers between communities. (Stephen Bloomer, University of Ulster)


In the face of such a discriminatory and provocative act,

"East Belfast FC, has to be commended for taking down this flag which was outside the house of one of their young players. People should take inspiration from their stand and organise against all racist intimidations and attacks."
(Courtney Robinson, East Belfast Socialist Party).

It is hoped that the Club will continue to see support from local residents, other teams and media outlets, for the moral courage and leadership which they displayed. However, what is most desperately needed, is a cohesive, and robust Racial Equality Strategy. Local people have led from the front. Politics must follow.

In the words of East Belfast F.C., "RESPECT FOR ALL