Northern Ireland news

DUP MLA criticised after saying Cliftonville 'got what they deserved' for anthem protest

Cliftonville's players bowed their heads during the playing of God Save the Queen before the Irish Cup final at Windsor Park on Saturday
Gareth McKeown

A DUP MLA has been criticised for saying Cliftonville Football Club got "what their disrespect deserved" after bowing their heads during the playing of God Save the Queen at the Irish Cup final.

Cliftonville players and manager Barry Gray staged the protest after the Irish Football Association (IFA) refused a club request for the anthem not to be played before the match.

The north Belfast team, which has a predominantly nationalist support, went on to lose the showpiece final at Windsor Park on Saturday by 3-1 to Coleraine.

Unionists reacted angrily to pictures of the protest, with Upper Bann DUP MLA Carla Lockhart tweeting after the final whistle: "They got what their disrespect deserved. Well done Coleraine."

She was responding to a message from party colleague and South Antrim MLA Paul Girvan, who said: "If you want to see ignorance and arrogance, look at the picture."

South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford also described the protest as "crass".

"Any time I go to another country, Republic of Ireland, USA, France wherever, and the national anthem is played I stand and show respect (in the case of the States, I actually sing along because I know the words). There’s no need to be crass and disrespectful," he tweeted.

Mr Stalford was challenged online, with one person noting how former DUP first minister Peter Robinson attended a McKenna Cup final in 2012 - his first GAA match - but did not take his seat until after the Irish anthem was played.

Former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness attended Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 game with Germany in Paris when the British anthem was played, although five years earlier the party's sports minister Carál Ní Chuilín was absent for the playing of God Save the Queen when she attended a game at Windsor Park.

Sinn Féin South Down MP Chris Hazzard said the IFA had "scored a massive own goal" by allowing the British anthem to be played and described Windsor Park as a "cold house for Irish citizens".

North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly also said the message to Irish nationalists was "very negative" and called for the organisation to review its position.

“Windsor Park should be a venue where everyone is welcome no matter what their community background," he said.

On the last two occasions Cliftonville reached the Irish Cup final, in 2009 and 2013, the IFA agreed to drop the anthem.

In 2013, it said this was to help foster a “politically neutral environment”.

In considering the latest written request from the north Belfast club for the anthem not to be played, the IFA said members expressed sympathy for Cliftonville’s position but decided a policy agreed in August 2013 should stand.

The statement added that the IFA board had “committed to conducting a future stakeholder review of the issue”.

In a Twitter post on Saturday evening, Cliftonville chairman Gerard Lawlor praised his players for their performance and for showing "outstanding restraint" and "dignity" on the day.

He also took a swipe at those who have been critical of the club.

"As for anyone from outside, who feel the right to score points against our club, I couldn’t care less, your options mean nothing to me," he wrote.

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