What The Media Won't Tell You About Northern Ireland Fans

Journalists came flocking to Belfast in the lead up Euro 2016 to ask the same tired questions, but the reality paints a different picture.
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Journalists came flocking to Belfast in the lead up Euro 2016 to ask the same tired questions, but the reality paints a different picture.
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Euro Fever has hit Northern Ireland in a big, big way. And not the Father Ted type, the other one.

Fling a rock (or a bag of our beloved Tayto crisps - flinging rocks is so passé here these days) and you might hit a news reporter visiting on expenses to rehash a 'hands across the divide' piece from about 20 years ago. Even Channel 4 News were in on it.

The response from most of the locals? "That old toot? You must have come here in a DeLorean mate".

See, when it comes to Euro 16 some people support Northern Ireland and some people support the Republic of Ireland. Some both.

And that's it. No one cares which team people chose. Visiting reporters tend, though, to turn into Bono when they arrive and drag up conversations most people stopped having years ago. Where else in the world must football supporters be labelled by their politics first and team second? Can’t a fan just be a fan?

Northern Ireland has changed and moved on. Almost half of people don't vote (just over 45%), most people don't go to church and there's a big rise in local politicians outside the usual orange and green boxes (ironically, meaning a new seat for the Green Party and two new seats for the socialist People Before Profit, up 1.8% of the vote and 1.2% of the vote respectively). All the long-established parties dropped voters in the last elections. Meanwhile, in the 2011 census 29.4% of people were calling themselves 'Northern Irish’.

The one big thing visiting journalists tend to ignore? Thanks to the above it is no longer possible to tell a person’s politics based on their religion and that’s IF (and its a big IF) they have any. Think about that: basically, every piece of writing about football fans in Northern Ireland using religious labels is wrong. If most people don’t go to church and very often don’t vote, how could the old way of looking at things here be right?

There'll be those who'll play up to the cameras, and it is in their interests to keep the past alive, but for many people the labels and assumptions of the past just don't hold any more, and even less do they care.

The Good Friday peace agreement was almost two decades ago. Northern Ireland is enjoying a tourism bonanza, there are film crews from across the world scouting for unspoilt locations and our still non-corporate pubs are probably better than yours. A MasterCard survey said Belfast is the friendliest city in the UK. Another poll launched by the Big Lottery’s Big Lunch disagreed and said our County Fermanagh was the friendliest place in the UK. These are the only types of argument we like to hear these days, as the hand-wringing Troubles stuff was generally already boring long, long ago and is best kept for coining it in from the more macabre variety of tourist and for times we really have to smooth out the remaining issues from the past.

Oh, and Belfast was also declared the most tolerant city in the UK by one researcher, has been lauded as having the UK’s best artisan indoor market and the Guardian/ Observer Travel Awards UK city of the year was - you guessed it - Belfast. Have a look online for ‘why visit Belfast’? to see the likes of Conde Nast traveller queuing up to agree.

From Hayley Lewis, the Metro newspaper: “Come to Belfast for the people, who really are the most friendly and welcoming of any city I’ve ever been to. In any bar you’re likely to meet a local ready to tell you tales of Belfast, Games of Thrones, recommend a restaurant or anything else you should require. And did I mention the accent…”

With all this going on, you don't need a DeLorean or a copy-pasted news article to understand what people really care about here in 2016, why people happily choose different national teams at Euro 2016, or why everyone, including most Northern Ireland fans, gave up discussing the whole thing years ago.