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Brendan Crossan: The GAA must do more to address 'British' and 'Queen' taunts towards northern players

Neil Lennon has spoken out about the sectarian abuse he regularly receives.

IN a compelling press conference last November, Hibernian manager Neil Lennon didn’t make a distinction between racism and sectarianism after being struck by a coin during the Edinburgh derby with Hearts.

Attacked on umpteen occasions during his playing and managerial career in Scotland, Lennon insisted: “You call it sectarianism here in Scotland, I call it racism. If a black man is abused, you're not just abusing the colour of his skin - you're abusing his culture, heritage, his background.

“It's the exact same when I get called a Fenian, a pauper, a beggar, a tarrier. These people have a sense of entitlement, or a superiority complex, and all I do is stand up for myself.

“Pretty poor, all this, 'I was goading people, I brought it on myself'. There was an effigy outside Tynecastle saying, 'hang Neil Lennon', that was before the game.

“Did I bring that on myself? Everyone says I play the victim - I don't.”

He added: "Hanging people is something the Ku Klux Klan did in the 60s to black people so maybe that's the mentality of people who want to write this stuff.”

Many observers listened intently to Lennon and nodded approvingly. They no doubt did so again on Wednesday evening when Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke spoke of the sectarian abuse he was subjected to during his side’s Scottish Cup replay against Rangers at Ibrox.

Former Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o walked off the pitch after being racially abused by a section of the Real Zaragoza fans during a Spanish La Liga in 2006, only to be persuaded by his manager Frank Rijkaard to return and finish the game.

Even though Eto’o played out the remainder of the game the Cameroon international had made his point quite forcefully and was warmly applauded for doing so.

Closer to home, Crossmaglen Rangers’ footballer Aaron Cunningham reacted angrily after being racially taunted by a Kilcoo player in the Ulster Club final at The Athletic Grounds in 2012.

Cunningham showed that he had an exceptionally low tolerance level for such abuse.

I admired him for taking a stand that afternoon as I remembered his father, Joey, being abused during his Irish League days – a time when racism and local football were happy bedfellows.

Aaron believed there were more important things than the outcome of an Ulster final.

Like calling out racial abuse.

Like many field sports, the GAA sometimes falls short of its own ideals.

It seems more prevalent than ever now where players from the south abuse players from the north about being "British" or having a "Queen" as their head of state.

The advent of social media has shone an unforgiving light on many examples of taunting over identity and culture.

In the All-Ireland Club senior hurling semi-final between Cushendall and St Thomas's earlier this month, a St Thomas's player was alleged to have aimed a "British" taunt at a Cushendall player.

Reacting to the claim, former Antrim player Anto Finnegan tweeted: "Just point the perpetrators to the many articles about Naomh Enna these past few weeks (a story shared by many other northern clubs) detailing what GAA people in the North endured to retain their Irish identity. They should be ashamed of themselves."

As with a lot of these cases, nobody wants to blow the whistle on the perpetrator(s).

Off the record briefings suggest the taunt did occur but nobody wanted to say it in public.

And that's the real pity as it seems to be an unwritten rule between two sets of players that whatever is said on the field of the play stays on the field of play.

Anyone who breaks that code is some kind of scab.

After St Thomas's drew with Loughgiel Shamrocks in their 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, members of the Galway team stood accused.

The Loughgiel Shamrocks Facebook page let the cat out of the bag.

A few days before their scheduled replay in Clones, a high-profile member of the north Antrim club had a job on their hands trying to 'spike' the story as they didn't want the "British" taunts to overshadow their second meeting.

The same occurred when members of the Garrycastle team were alleged to have abused some Crossmaglen Rangers players during their drawn All-Ireland final in 2012.

The Irish News ran a back page story - much to the dismay of the Crossmaglen management team.

Like Loughgiel, they didn't want the 'sledging' accusations to assume centre stage prior to the replay.

Imagine being a fly on the wall in the Crossmaglen changing room before they went out and ran over Garrycastle in the replay.

Awaiting press reporters scribbled the sanitised words of the victors and the vanquished the following day.

It was claimed the Carlow hurlers were at the same business against Antrim in Corrigan Park last season in one of the most distasteful games you’ll see.

A few years back Armagh's Ciaran McKeever took the law into his own hands in the tunnel when a Laois footballer began singing 'God Save The Queen' into his ear for the entire first half.

Of course, it shouldn't need to be stated that there is nothing innately racist or negative about being British; the same is true of, say, being of Indian origin.

But, of course, context is vital – just as it was when Lord Kilclooney found himself thrust into a race row after describing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Twitter as a “typical Indian”.

The sitting House of Lords member later acknowledged it was a mistake to do so, although his subsequent Twitter musings retain their capricious tendencies.

For some competitors in the GAA, that old-fashioned Corinthian spirit is exactly that: old-fashioned.

It’s not cool to just play hard and fair. In trying to find that inch of an advantage, some players will stoop to any depth.

And yet, they’ll sign their post-match autographs, smile for ‘selfies’ and straighten their tie before going out to work in the morning to rejoin civil society, thinking that abusing their fellow Gaels on a Sunday afternoon is all part of the process.

Neil Lennon was right to say there should be no hierarchy of abuse, whether it's racial, cultural or otherwise.

In this era of ‘Brexit’ and Trump, our tolerance levels are creeping upwards.

Bigotry is feeling free and easy again.

The GAA can do more to kick this kind of north-south abuse into touch.

Every parent, every coach, every player and every team-mate also has it in their gift to stop this gutter behaviour.

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