James McClean has scandalised Britain’s right and honourable again. He has fauxtraged Little Englanders on social media and bewildered upstanding Middle England. Aye, this time he opted out of paying reverence to ‘God Save the Queen‘ and the Cross of St. George prior to a pre-season friendly for his club, West Bromwich Albion, in the USA last weekend.
Shocking, isn’t it? They should bring back hanging or something…
The gesture will no doubt have appeared culturally-alien to many on the eastern side of the Irish Sea for it is something that is oddly northern Irish (albeit not uniquely so), but that by no means excuses the vitriol and dog’s abuse that has since been launched McClean’s way from around the UK as a result. And let us just be clear; whilst he, as the anthem was set to commence, somewhat-awkwardly returned to the default 45-degree-angle stance relative to his re-positioned team-mates, he most certainly did not turn his back on the flag. (It is important to make that distinction considering the provocative and offensive connotations associated with purposely turning one’s back on someone or something else.)
Why, it must be wondered, did a team composed of a mix of players of various different nationalities collectively decide to turn to face the Cross of St. George anyway when such motion was not even in accordance with the convention of the ever-forward-facing English national football team during renditions of ‘God Save the Queen’ before their games? In fact, why the British national anthem was being played at all before a pre-season club friendly game is a puzzler in itself. One would have to assume it was simply a nod of respect to the visiting club in line with the general American tradition of patriotic anthem-playing before sporting events-cum-spectacles.
Anyway, back to the main subject; James McClean. So, why did he do what he did? It is crucial that we understand its context so that we can interpret it correctly and therefore discuss it with an empathy and comprehension very sorely lacking in current popular British discourse on the matter (barring a few noteworthy exceptions I have encountered in the form of the thoughtful offerings of Alexander Netherton, Brian Reade and Jonathan Liew in the conservative Telegraph, surprisingly).
The reasoning behind McClean’s gesture was very much rooted in that proud, old northern tradition of anthem disengagement. In the north of Ireland, national and cultural symbolism possesses a heightened or loaded sense of significance due to the region’s troubled past. Various symbols have assumed a contentious nature for the respective communities due to the fact these symbols represent the very essence of the clashing politico-cultural identities once in violent conflict. Certain symbols, by their very existence, were inextricably linked to the social lines of division. Unfortunately for ye patriotic West Brom fans, ‘God Save the Queen’ happens to be just one of those contentious symbols for members of the nationalist and republican communities in the north of Ireland.
In an article of his own on the latest hoo-ha to erupt over McClean, my first-cousin-once-removed and “nasty little man”, Jude Collins, wrote of anthem disengagement during his days of youth:
When I was a growing lad, they used to play ‘God Save The Queen’ after a film in the local cinema. Half the audience would stand stock still and half the audience would head for the exit, if necessary vaulting over rows of seats to do so. That practice of playing ‘God Save The Queen’ has been happily discontinued.
Whilst ‘God Save the Queen’ is no longer played in the local cinemas, the dirge remains a pervasive unionist feature of public life in the north of Ireland; as the national anthem of the UK, it is also the official anthem of the constituent northern statelet. Consequently, the practice by members of the other side of sincerely avoiding it has also endured.
Many English football fans may not be aware of it, but, like the Football Association, the Irish Football Association also play ‘God Save the Queen’ as their anthem before games and it is therefore common, if not expected, to see Northern Ireland players from Catholic or nationalist backgrounds bow out in identical fashion to how McClean bowed out last weekend. By and large, there is little fuss made over what is a well-established gesture. The players are respected by most and that is how it should be.
Such displays are not unique to the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ either. Indeed, the Irish national anthem, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann‘, has also been played through similar and, believe it or not, survived. Sammy Morrow, a Protestant from Limavady was lining out for Derry City in the 2008 FAI Cup final against Bohemians at the RDS in Dublin; with the Irish anthem about to commence, as is protocol in football settings when the anthem is played, both teams turned sideways to face the Irish tricolour behind a goal at one end of the stadium. The only player not to turn – he stood out like a sore thumb – was Morrow. Instead, he remained standing quietly and out-of-sync facing towards us Derry fans in the main stand. He stood starkly at odds with the 21 other players in line with him, but, as an Ulster Protestant, he had every right to respectfully abstain from facing the flag and opt out of paying deference to an anthem with which he might not have felt entirely culturally comfortable. With the exception of a minority of fans in the crowd, no offence was taken and no outrage was warranted.
In his piece on McClean, Jude detailed another interesting occurrence of Irish anthem avoidance by a northerner. This one involved not just any old pleb, mind you. Rather, the very cream of northern society featured by absence. Yes – shock, horror – even the esteemed First Minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party has dabbled in the dark art of opting out. Jude outlined the scene:
The McKenna Cup Final was a Gaelic football game played in 2012 between Armagh and Tyrone. It was notable for the fact that First Minister Peter Robinson attended it. On the BBC website NI sports reporter Mark Sidebottom is reported as saying that Mr Robinson took his seat just after the throw-in. Thus avoiding the opportunity to stand for the Irish national anthem. Was that disrespectful? If James McClean had stayed in the dug-out until the end of the English national anthem, would that have been disrespectful?
Barnes, from a nationalist background, had just won gold in his weight category. After having been awarded his medal on the podium, the unionist Ulster Banner was raised over the arena and the ‘Londonderry Air‘ began to play through the public-address system; the ‘Londonderry Air’ is the purportedly-neutral designated victory anthem for the Northern Ireland team at the Games. Nevertheless, Barnes bowed his head in a gesture of disengagement before the surprised Welsh bronze-medal-winning competitor to his left remarked inquisitively as to why, after having just won the gold medal, he was exhibiting such a posture during “his” anthem. Of course, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann‘ is Paddy Barnes’ national anthem; he replied to his fellow competitor assuredly, “That’s not my anthem”, thus prompting outraged melt-down amongst those of a unionist or loyalist persuasion who felt he was not being subservient enough for their liking.
The Barnes incident drew a greater level of consternation than might have been usual on account of the boxer’s outspokenness mid-display; it is evidently much easier for the community diametric to the outward gesture to tolerate disengagement when its expression is more passive than seemingly-challenging by its forthrightness. Nevertheless, non-participation in the anthem spectacle, of which the aforementioned cases are all classic examples, as well as the relatively bi-communally-tolerable or non-taboo status of the phenomenon in the north of Ireland, in comparison to how it is broadly interpreted and received elsewhere, is very much a social manifestation of the parity-of-esteem ethos and a progressive societal step above the base, destructive, regressive, anti-egalitarian and imperious culture of paranoia and vengeance that breeds supremacist-tinged practices such as flag protesting and emblem desecration.
On a societal level, the combination of gesture and its receipt is to say, roughly or symbolically, “you play your anthem and I will, rather than attack it or you for it, like I might have done in the past, simply respectfully disengage on the mutual understanding that that is OK with you”. That is parity of esteem at its purest; the idea of two once-violently-clashing and seemingly-mutually-exclusive cultures co-existing in acceptance of one another’s validity and right to exist whilst remaining true to themselves and refraining from imposing culturally upon one another.
I have comprehensively outlined McClean’s cultural background already in a piece regarding the poppy-related pseudo-controversy that all-too-inevitably envelopes him every November. Somehow, in spite of growing poverty in Britain and the already-grotesque gap between rich and poor growing ever-wider at a truly exponential rate, we are to believe that the British media’s reactionary cabal have nothing more worthwhile by which to be angered on these occasions. On this week’s occasion, McClean has been accused of hating Britain and England (and has even been told to leave). Where to start?…
To view last weekend’s gesture as a display of Anglophobic bitterness is to completely misinterpret it. McClean clearly looked to be in an uncomfortable situation upon realising what was about to commence, so no doubt thought quickly and did exactly what he has long seen other players from nationalist backgrounds do in the same situation; he disengaged. His disengagement should not have been seen as intentionally disrespectful for it was not an act of even mild quasi-iconoclasm. There was no booing or gesticulating in protest; he respectfully kept quiet with his eyes closed and his head down. The anthem played on uninterrupted and the flag remained visible and present for those who wished to demonstrate their reverence.
The gesture was ultimately rooted, not in bitterness or hate, but in a self-respecting fear of appearing subservient to a particular idea embodied by the symbolism concerned. James McClean evidently does not hate the English or British; he gets along fine with them every day of living in England. Likewise, he has no issues with his Northern Ireland-representing team-mates and gets on perfectly well with them. Disengaging from honouring particular state institutions or ideological paraphernalia does not equate to a rebuff of an entire nation of people, nor does living in a particular state necessitate that the dweller conforms and adheres to all the moral expectations and preferences of its mainstream orthodoxy.
Having been born and raised in the jurisdiction, McClean is more than entitled to work in the UK and, living within its law, to enjoy the benefits of that society, which include, we are told, the supposedly-cherished freedoms to express his convictions and to withhold his veneration (it is a liberal democracy, isn’t it?), especially considering he pays very handsomely back into the system in taxed income. And, yet, we have plenty of detractors bitterly arguing to deny him his entitlement. If contribution confers rights, then there is a logical hypocrisy and vacuousness to many of those simplistic arguments suggesting that McClean himself is a hypocrite to accept his wage whilst holding a particular unpopular stance and that he should conform to local expectations and preferences (whatever they may be) or clear off if unprepared to do that; he will already have paid more back into the system than most of us, including those scathingly attacking him, will over the course of our lives.
Accepting a wage within a particular society does not nullify any right to conscientiously abstain from participation in certain symbolic pursuits undertaken by that society, nor does it necessarily render one inconsistent and unprincipled if they do happen to abstain. If it did, then to take this line of argument to its elemental or logical conclusion by way of an example, no employee would have a moral right to, say, protest against or petition for an improvement in the conditions of his or her employment on the basis that he or she had signed away his or her right to dissent by accepting monetary return for his or her labour in the first place. Such idealist purism is not practical in social life and is an unreasonable principle or standard to impose absolutely upon all human relations and interactions.
McClean’s gesture stemmed from a mindful uneasiness with being seen to be exhibiting deference to ‘God Save the Queen’ for fear of it potentially being presumed tantamount to a submission to or an approval of a triumphalist British or unionist sentiment. It emanated from a vigilance over how a show of observance might be interpreted; such could very easily be mistaken by the uninformed (or, indeed, the malicious) for a display of subservience to the Ulster unionist ideology of the self-proclaimed “chosen people” that once ruled supreme and unchecked in Ireland’s north. In this context, his reaction was not at all surprising. It is only natural that an Irish nationalist would be instinctively reluctant to appear subservient to unionist symbolism; in a general way, he was culturally responding or reacting, as an Irish nationalist, to the perception of him or his community being imperiously told through recent history, “this is your anthem and you better revere it”, and instead declaring, “no it’s not, so I’m going to opt out”. To exhibit deference to the symbolism would perhaps have been thought of as a self-defeating act of symbolic subordination.
As Niall McGinn stated in 2009 of his and other nationalist-background players’ disengagement from renditions of ‘God Save the Queen’ when lining out for Northern Ireland:
Just put your head down and try to get through it…. Just keep it down. I mean you have boys like Michael O’Connor and Sammy Clingan who are Catholic boys from Belfast and they just keep their heads really low so as not to make a scene but also to show that as Catholics they must be respected.
Generally-speaking, the gesture is pure self-affirmation and is a silent assertion for respect of the self and of the nationalist identity, lest those fundamentally-cherished concepts be threatened by erroneous presumptions. On a purely socio-psychological level, perhaps it is indicative of a degree of cultural or communal insecurity or of a need for reassurance – such can be a typical by-product of one’s growing up in a society where defensiveness ensured survival and where there was an oppressive or over-riding sense that a significant portion of the majority population or culture might have wished harm or posed a threat to one’s cultural well-being – or maybe, at its most basic, it is a manifestation of no more or no less than communal pride and conscientious self-regard for one’s heritage. Maybe, and I am not excluding myself from this analysis, all displays of pride ultimately amount to a human means of seeking some sort of social approval or reassurance in one way or another, which is, of course, fine and only natural. Either way, though, the gesture of disengagement from the national anthem spectacle ought to be respected. In what sort of society are we living when persons are being ordered to pay deference to particular symbols or are being asked, by even writers in the mainstream press, to leave the society concerned on account of their alleged transgressions?
As I have suggested, the possible fear or anxiety related to appearing subservient is very naturally more pronounced in a divided society moving on from a conflict that involved elements of two “mutually exclusive” or incompatible sides variously attempting to violently out-balance, domineer or subjugate one another and, for nationalists in the north, ‘God Save the Queen’ remains a very real symbol and reminder of those who, not just in living memory, but also contemporaneously, gladly lord it over their community and who crudely and parochially perceive nationalists’ falling one step behind as constituting a progressive leap for them. Their yardstick for measuring their own success is perceived nationalist failure and weakness. If you are a nationalist who is secure enough in his or her identity to be able to overlook that, that is commendable, but I will defend the likes of James McClean if stepping above it is something over which he still has strong emotional and rational reservations, for obvious reasons. I will not hold him to blame for a reluctance to psychologically subjugate himself to a breathing ideology of supremacy. Why should he feel bad for it?
Many may not agree with the above interpretation of the national anthem spectacle, but different symbols have very different meanings for different people and, in the north of Ireland, many symbols were once literally matters of life and death. There is, of course, no need to go into a full-on history lesson on how the actions of the British army in Derry and elsewhere might have further coloured many inhabitants’ pretty raw view of British and English state symbolism – indeed, the Union flag was commonly referred to as the “Butcher’s Apron” in darker days – but when one grows up seeing tattered Union flags flying from lamp-posts next to Ulster Volunteer Force flags and the like, they understandably may find it difficult to erase such vivid and intimidating imagery from their memory. These are the indelible and interconnected symbols of the old domineering culture that long posed difficulty for the northern nationalist.
Whilst this tradition of anthem disengagement is a peculiarly northern Irish phenomenon, it has to be said it is not unique to the region. In the international sporting context, anthem-playing is inevitably frequent and public. Consequently, the arena performs as visible and effective a role as an indicator of complex and unresolved national or ethno-cultural identity issues within particular societies at large as any other. When Arab or Palestinian citizens of Israel line out for the Israel national football team under the shadow of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, they will often appear distinguishable by their non-participatory anthem postures. Abbas Suan, Walid Badir and Beram Kayal (Israel’s number 7 in the video below) are just a few players who have quietly stood through Israel’s Judeo-centric national anthem, ‘Hatikvah‘, with heads firmly bowed towards the ground in disengagement on each occasion they have played international football for Israel.
Right-wing commentators in Israel have criticised these minority group members of the team for their refusal to participate. Silence is their voice within a unilateral and assertedly-homogeneous society that devotes to them rarely positive attention, if they are afforded attention at all. Elsewhere in the fragile post-conflict realm, anthem dissenters have been subjected to worse than mere criticism. Adem Ljajić, an ethnic Bosniak Muslim, was suspended by the Football Association of Serbia for having opted out of singing the Serbian national anthem before a game 2012. Serbia’s manager at the time, Siniša Mihajlović, enforced a policy demanding that his players should sing the anthem. As a result, Ljajić didn’t play for Serbia again until after the tenure of Mihajlović came to an end in February of 2014.
It is to his great shame that Tony Pulis, James McClean’s manager at West Brom, has revealed himself to be of a similar illiberal and authoritarian school of thought. Of the McClean incident, Pulis stated:
He’s got to turn towards the flag like everybody else has…. Obviously there has been a stigma around him and he doesn’t need to start that up again.
It is admittedly unlikely the peculiar circumstances from which the gesture transpired will ever arise again, unless West Brom qualify for a cup final whilst McClean is in their starting line-up, but such an obligation as that outlined by the victim-blaming Pulis would be completely out-of-order in any other place of work. If what Pulis said is actually anything other than mere rhetoric to appease the outraged and, if enforced upon McClean and it had a detrimental effect upon his employment through mistreatment, reprimanding or similar on account of his conscientious objection, I submit that McClean would have a credible case for breach of his rights under equality and employment law. The Human Rights and Equality Acts apply in the workplace too. If my employer was instructing me in such a dictatorial manner, I would be flabbergasted. It would be utterly inappropriate, especially as it would bear no relation to my pre-agreed job role (not that the signing of a contract necessarily washes away all rights an employee might otherwise enjoy anyway).
As for the all-too-familiar commotion in general, as I have said – and it is worth repeating – it is really nothing more than just another tiresome pseudo-controversy. Maybe tolerant Albion needs to have a contemplative look at itself in the mirror.
The above piece was also published on Back Page Football.