Upon reading about the recent James McClean controversy, two questions sprang immediately into my mind before any others. Firstly, why on earth were national anthems being played before a club match? Secondly, was it appropriate that I should even seek to address the issues raised by McClean’s refusal to face the Union Jack when this most divisive incident took place? To answer the first question, the match in question was being played Charleston, South Carolina and, as we all know, there is perhaps no other nation that has fetishised the very notion of flags and anthems in a way that the United States of America has. To the hosts, the presence of flags and anthems before this match was most likely little more than a common courtesy being extended to the visitors, a perfectly natural ceremony to go through before the start of a match.

Still, though, not only did the idea of club teams lining up to face national anthems before a match seem incongruous, it seems odd that this should have been agreed to be A Good Idea under these particular circumstances. It seems difficult to believe that West Bromwich Albion were not made aware that the two teams would be expected to line up before the match and face “their” flags, and it feels like something of an oversight that nobody connected with the English club might have quietly suggested to their hosts that one of their players might have a significant objection to this and that, on this occasion, playing both national anthems might not necessarily be the wisest of ideas. After all, the viewpoints of James McClean on this sort of matter are hardly a secret, and there is nothing in the culture of club football in England – the FA Cup Final aside – that has ever normalised the playing of national anthems or saluting of flags before matches. Had God Save The Queen not been played before the start of this match it is unlikely that anybody would have noticed, even if the two teams had stood in line for a quick rendition of The Star Spangled Banner alone.

The of these two initial questions is arguably more difficult to answer. After all, regardless of any political opinions that I may or may not hold, I am English, so is it even possible that I can offer an objective opinion on this subject? Alternatively, I might offer the question of whether so much as an objective assessment of a subject matter that is so emotive for so many people is desirable or even possible. Opinions on matters of patriotism are difficult enough to engage with in terms of the complex (and frequently fractious) nature of the United Kingdom and its various constituent parts at the best of times, and they’re never more difficult or fractious when looked at through the prism of The Troubles in Northern Ireland and, to extrapolate the matter out still further, the history of the relationship between Britain and Ireland.

Whilst much of the conversation relating to these issues would be likely to end in a circular fashion, what we can say with a degree of certainty is that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ended a circle of violence which had, for the whole of my life to that point, carried a feeling of perpetuity about it. Political compromise on all sides ended this, and that compromise reached the heights of the political establishments on all sides of the equation. It is unlikely that there will ever be a final resolution to the matter of the political “ownership” (for the want of a better word) of Northern Ireland (or, if you prefer, The North of Ireland) that will satisfy every individual with an interest in it, but at least the common assent over the last seventeen years has been that peace in the area must take precedence over all other considerations.

The reaction of some in the British press was as reactionary as we might have expected, and it felt as if there was a degree of fauxtrage about at least some of the acres of opinion that the incident provoked. Luke Edwards of the Daily Telegraph, for example, asked the question of how McClean could possibly bring himself to live and work in a country “at the heart of Britain’s ‘colonial power’.” Edwards is, of course, asking the wrong question. It is clearly not James McClean’s responsibility to hold a certain set of political opinions in order to live in England. Certain sections of the political right in this country seem to be constantly constantly reminding us of the liberties and values that we enjoy in this country, but if England is anything approaching a liberal democracy, it should really be able to tolerate a diversity of opinions which includes not wishing to honour its flag and a song about its monarch in this way. If free speech cannot be extended to contrary opinions to the Daily Telegraph’s version of orthodoxy without saying “if he hates it so much, he should leave” in reply, it can only be interpreted that Edwards’ interpretation of “everybody’s right to protest, as well as their freedom of expression” is some way short of being as “free” as it would likely believe itself it to be.

McClean’s previous involvement over this particular matter has come, of course, in relation to the wearing of a poppy on his shirt at the time of Remembrance Sunday, and this is where the subject comes somewhat more complex. I wrote on the subject of the media scrum that surrounded his refusal to wear a poppy in November 2012, and it’s an opinion that I stand by. Flags and national anthems, however, are not the same as poppies, and perhaps the most articulate criticism of McClean over this particular aspect of the story has come from the Republic of Ireland, where Irish Independent writers Eamonn Sweeney and Dion Fanning have both offered have offered critiques of his behaviour than have been considerably more measured and eloquent than most that were offered in the British press at the time.

Perhaps, however, it is the case that these arguments could only be made with any degree of proportion from the Republic of Ireland. Ultimately, the relationship between Irish republicans and the British is – in the perception of the former, at least – that of the subjugated and imperialist “masters,” and it is a clear awareness of this perception that makes to difficult to comment critically upon McClean’s actions from this side of the Irish Sea in any way whatsoever without at the very least sounding like – and, quite plausibly, being – imperialist in outlook that makes commenting on it all without ending up sounding like a watered down version of Luke Edwards so difficult. There is a fundamental truth behind the fact that, as Fanning put it, “not everybody who was bothered by McClean’s gesture last weekend is a bigot.”

But such is the nature of the history between Britain and the republicans of Northern Ireland that it doesn’t feel appropriate that it should be anybody from England that is saying this. It would be a folly, however, to forget the contention that The Troubles in that part of the world were ultimately a human tragedy which was ended because a lot of people made compromises that they might not have wanted to make but did so because peace in Northern Ireland had to end up trumping any political ideals, in the short-to-medium term at least. Perhaps in the future, at least those concerned with such events might take on board that there is something fundamentally incongruous about national flags and national anthems having much of a place in club football.

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