Conferencing and Cliftonville – A Return to the ‘Blogosphere’

So, like many things in life I started this blog with lots of enthusiasm last April and then totally neglected it after two posts. I’m going to start it again as it’s been an interesting year football-wise for me. I have many games and issues to write about so I’ll be posting consistently over the next few weeks.

At the end of April (2012) I presented a paper on the rise in popularity during the 1970s of Cliftonville Football Club from North Belfast at a conference at Liverpool Hope University. The conference was entitled ‘Sport, Conflict and Reconciliation’ and was hosted by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies. I presented my paper as part of a panel on the topic ‘Sport and Conflict’. Other illuminating papers were given on the FAI and sectarianism, inter-city footballing rivalry in Birmingham and football in post-war Bosnia and Herzogovina.

I have copied into this entry a draft of the paper which I presented (in abbreviated form – I had 15 minutes in which to speak) and which I hope carry out additional research for and submit to a journal such as ‘Soccer and Society’. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Introduction: Context

In 1971 the violence which was to characterise the conflict in Northern Ireland throughout that decade began to rise exponentially. Two months early in 1971, February and March, brought events that would have caused much consternation in working class Loyalist areas. In February a soldier with the 32nd Heavy Regiment of the Royal Artillery[1] was shot dead by an IRA sniper during a gun battle in the New Lodge area of North Belfast.[2] However it was the kidnap and execution of three young soldiers from the Royal Highland Fusiliers[3] that caused a major rupture in the levee of Protestant feeling. The killings led to a march by Belfast’s shipyard workers on Friday March 12th that was designed to highlight the desire for the re-introduction of internment for IRA members. In May, on the Duncairn Gardens in North Belfast, a gang of Loyalist youths apprehended two Catholic schoolboys from St. Patrick’s secondary school and carved the letters ‘UVF’ on their arms.[4] There were other sinister developments in North Belfast which were reported in July 1971. For example, the UVF was alleged to have threatened Catholic families living in the mainly Protestant Tynedale Estate off the Crumlin Road, forcing the Catholic Ardoyne Citizens’ Defence Association Committee to open up Holy Cross Primary School to house the outbound refugees.[5] By the middle of 1971 and following an increase in IRA violence, the bitterness and frustration that had been growing within working class Protestant communities across Northern Ireland and especially in Belfast began to manifest itself on the streets in the form of vigilante groups – or to use the popular parlance in Loyalist areas at the time, ‘Defence Associations’. These began to be formed in those working class districts in order to protect Protestants from IRA incursions.

August 1971: Internment, violence and population movements

During the summer of 1971 the shipyard workers who had marched in the preceding spring had their wishes granted with the introduction of a system of internment without trial on August 9th. In September 1971 the Community Relations Commission Research Unit published a report entitled ‘FLIGHT’[6]. The report recorded the population movements had which occurred in Belfast during the previous month following an upsurge in communal violence. The violence, which occurred in the second week of August, was a response to the internment of suspected republican terrorists in the city. North Belfast was the focal point for much of the unrest and geographical boundaries in the area, which were already complex, were further redrawn along sectarian lines in the midst of violence and the panic that ensued. According to the authors of the FLIGHT report Protestant families left the New Ardoyne during a heavy gun battle in the area and 151 Catholic families moved in, coming from areas such as Ballysillan, Ligoniel, Oldpark Road/Rosapenna Street, Monkstown and Rathcoole. Catholic families leaving the mixed areas in the South-East of the Oldpark zone between Manor Street and Rosapenna Street moved across the Oldpark Road into the Ballynure Streets which expanded the Catholic ghetto in nearby Ardilea Street. Many other Catholic families moved out of the Oldpark zone completely, relocating to the nearby New Lodge area.

The Cliftonville: Demographic change, the Cricket Club and the modest re-birth of Cliftonville FC

The Cliftonville Road, which up until the Troubles had been a mixed area, also witnessed an inward movement of Catholics close to Cliftonville Football Club’s increasingly ironically named ‘Solitude’ ground.[7] Like the area it was located in Cliftonville FC was a small amateur club and had, up until the early 1970s, attracted a small but loyal following from Protestants, Catholics and the nearby Antrim Road’s large Jewish community. However by the early to mid 1970s the geography of the Cliftonville Road had changed in a similar fashion to many other areas in North Belfast. Dispossessed Catholics had marked out the Cliftonville Road, which linked to the Antrim Road, as their territory as was the trend among both polarised communities at the time. Sugden and Bairner have demonstrated how sport almost immediately became the first casualty of this new influx:

   ‘…because of its anglophile connotations, cricket has already been a casualty of sectarian politics in Northern Ireland. Cliftonville Cricket Club was burned out of its premises in north Belfast in 1972, two years after the club’s centenary. Through the polarising demographic shifts which followed the serious rioting of the early 1970s, this area of north Belfast went from being neutral to being predominantly Catholic. The presence of one of the Province’s oldest cricket clubs in the neighbourhood was unacceptable to local nationalists. According to its souvenir brochure (1990), Cliftonville Cricket Club ‘fell victim to elements who were hostile to the club and what it represented in the area.’’[8]

It was in the same year that Cliftonville Cricket Club and the accompanying Hockey Club, which had a tenancy agreement at the Cricket ground, were intimidated from the area that the previously dormant football club at Solitude on Cliftonville Street began to lay ambitious plans for its future. In the summer of 1972 it was decided by Cliftonville’s directors that the club should change its constitution from what the News Letter, ironically in hindsight termed ‘true-blue amateurish to a professional framework.’[9] The club’s early ambitions hit a glass ceiling as they immediately realised that despite their new constitution they did not have enough funds in the coffers to buy even a single semi-professional footballer. On Friday August 4th 1972, the ‘new’ Cliftonville FC played its first game at Solitude in a 3-1 Carlsberg Cup defeat to Ballymena United, with 16 year old Des Brennan having the honour of scoring the club’s first non-amateur goal. The News Letter somewhat condescendingly reported that,

‘With their new strip – a snappy rig-out of red and white halves – and the first faltering steps on the professional road, Cliftonville couldn’t have taken much comfort from the half-empty terraces.’[10]

A few years of mediocrity followed and the empty terraces at Solitude were fixed like a prop in the middle of what was known in the mid-1970s as Belfast’s ‘murder triangle’ where UVF and UDA gangs including the Shankill Butchers attacked Catholics at random on the tree-lined streets that sprawled in a labyrinthine style close to the ground. Indeed the journalist Martin Dillon has written that the Butchers’ leader,

‘(Lenny) Murphy, with his history of killing going back to the early seventies and his geographical knowledge of Belfast, was aware of the potential the Cliftonville Road offered. A favourable feature for a killer was the fact that the road was only minutes from the Shankill and other Loyalist strongholds and it rose steeply, the brow of it providing a panoramic view and thus an excellent way of spotting the presence of Army or police patrols.’[11]

Belfast Celtic, Derry City…Cliftonville?

John Platt

While the murders on the Cliftonville would continue throughout the mid-1970s, the fortunes of the small club at Solitude would begin to grow. In 1975 John Platt, who would later become known as ‘God’ to Cliftonville fans, was bought from Coleraine for the price of a book of ballots.[12] With John Platt eventually scoring 99 goals and Jackie Hutton laying sound foundations in the manager’s seat Cliftonville began to rise. In tandem with the team’s growing success on the pitch there came a massive rise in its support base. While any team that does well can expect a groundswell in support, the dynamics behind the proliferation in Cliftonville’s following had a core social and ideological construct which was perhaps a particular reaction to certain sectarian dynamics in Northern Irish society. In 1948, for example, Belfast Celtic which was based in Catholic West Belfast were forced to withdraw from the Irish League after a player had his leg broken by a mob of Linfield supporters on Boxing Day of that year during a match at Windsor Park. The attack was, at the time, only the most recent occurrence in long-standing sectarian violence which was becoming regular at the fixture. The Belfast Celtic board, deciding that the club could no longer play in such a climate, announced that it would leave the League at the end of 1948-49 season.[13]

Three decades later Derry City would become the second major team to leave the Irish League. Derry City play their home games at the Brandywell in Derry’s nationalist Bogside area.  In the early 1970s visiting teams would have to negotiate various barricades to trawl through what was known as ‘Free Derry’ to play at the Brandywell. Cronin has referred to a game on 19th August 1971 against Crusaders which was postponed because of the heavy barricades erected around the ground. The Brandywell was then used that same afternoon by the SDLP and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association for a 7000 strong rally which Cronin suggests was,

‘…to encourage a campaign of civil disobedience amongst the Catholic and Nationalist population to overthrow the Stormont Parliament.’[14]

This had an alienating effect on the majority of Irish League teams, many of whom would have had a vast majority of Protestant supporters. After violence flared at the Brandywell in September 1971 during a game against Ballymena United all Irish League clubs decided unanimously to cease visiting the Brandywell. Having been banned from playing any further home games at the Brandywell the club withdrew from the Irish League on 13th October 1972, frustrated by the League’s refusal to lift the ban.[15] At the base of the experiences of both Belfast Celtic and Derry City there is often an underlying perception that not enough was done to make life easier for the clubs in the face of sectarian bullying from opposition fans and players. Indeed Derry City perceived that the majority of clubs in the Irish League did not want to have to deal with the realities of playing football in a Catholic/nationalist stronghold.[16] In the decades following the demise of Belfast Celtic, some Belfast Catholics adopted Distillery who played their home games on the Grosvenor Road, near Celtic Park. However Distillery seemed reticent to be tied to any emerging sectarian imperative and in 1972 left for a nomadic existence owing to a growth in trouble at their games.[17] The gap which was left by Belfast Celtic and Derry City and also the Protestants who had left the Cliftonville Road in the early 1970s, left a population gap which was rapidly filled and hence a ready-made nationalist support for a football team which was playing its games in an area which by the mid-1970s had become a virtual Catholic ghetto. Bairner and Shirlow agree and have stated that,

‘Cliftonville only acquired a nationalist following after population shifts led to a marked decrease in the numbers of Protestants in the area. Into the vacuum stepped Catholics, primarily from the nearby Ardoyne and New Lodge districts, although also from other nationalist parts of the city and beyond.’[18]

In their edited collection on social identities in world football, Armstrong and Giulianotti refer to Castells’ three-fold typology[19] of how power shapes the interplay of social identities.[20] Cliftonville’s ‘Red Army’, given the context of Northern Ireland at the time, can be said to have been constructed within a ‘Resistance identity’, which Castells explains

‘is constructed by those individuals and groups who are at the wrong end of social domination, in the sense that they are socially excluded or stigmatized within the existing power framework. This identity gives rise to ‘communes’ or ‘communities’ that can enable a collective resistance, often defensive, to the forces of social domination. For example smaller football clubs (such as Millwall in England or Bryne in Norway) may husband this sense of ‘resistance identity’ through appeals to a strong sense of community representation, or the emphasizing of ethic differences.’[21]

Millwall FC

While the Protestant working class may also have argued, with some justification, that they were socially excluded within existing and previous power frameworks, the ‘Red Army’ construct of its identity, which included the flying of the Irish tricolour, was very much designed to emphasise resistance to British rule and perceived Unionist dominance of the nationalist working class.

1979: the ‘Red Army’ and the Irish Cup

The redrawing of sectarian boundaries from 1971 onwards had created much social and political trauma but had raised Cliftonville from virtual nobodies to the new pretenders to the crown of Irish football. Support was fanatical, and Catholics came from all over Belfast to attend matches at Solitude. The journalist Henry McDonald was part of the ‘Red Army’ and remembers that,

‘The Red Army’s west Belfast brigade, along with its isolated units from the outposts of the Markets, Lower Ormeau, the Short Strand and other Catholic enclaves, gathered up at the top of Castle Street between lunchtime and two o’clock in preparation for the route march across Millfield. Generally, there was little trouble as the Red Army cross Millfield while being escorted by RUC Land-Rovers and lines of riot police in order to prevent clashes with loyalists from the Shankill…Having successfully made it past the Shankill, the troublemakers in the Red Army turned their attentions towards other easier targets. On the New Lodge and Antrim Roads, these were British Army and RUC mobile patrols on security duty for match day…Although the riots were infrequent, they seemed to intensify from about 1980 onwards, when the first hunger strike erupted at the Maze prison. It was while walking across Millfield one Saturday en route to Solitude, rather than at a political demonstration or on television, that I heard the words: ‘Smash H-Block.’[22]

Yet it was not only into the ‘murder triangle’ that ‘Red Army’ supporters ventured on a regular basis to see their newly adopted team. They also ventured into the heartlands of Loyalist Belfast; areas where few Catholics would have wilfully visited after the late 1960s. Peter Shirlow, a Linfield supporter remembers his first encounter with the ‘Red Army’

‘…it was the Irish Cup first-round game at Windsor. It was like something out of the film Zulu. There were rumours about these new Cliftonville fans, the so-called Red Army. We had yet to encounter them in large numbers. And then that Saturday afternoon in January they arrived. About one thousand of them came over the horizon like in the film and marched onto the Spion Kop. That day there was a real sense that something was changing – that they were here in the heart of Protestant Ulster. Our reaction on the terraces in the old north stand was interesting: it was a mixture of shock and outrage.’[23]

The 1978-79 season, Cliftonville’s centenary year, was to be a pivotal one. In April 1979 they were crowned Irish Cup champions after a thrilling last-minute goal secured a 3-2 victory against Portadown. On the Saturday before the showpiece game, veteran journalist Malcolm Brodie reminded readers of Ireland’s Saturday Night that it had been 70 long years since Cliftonville’s last taste of Irish Cup success, defeating Bohemians 2-1 on 10th April 1909 in Dublin.

Cliftonville’s success had made Irish League football, which was still arguably reeling from the loss of Belfast Celtic and Derry City, competitive and interesting again yet there remained an element in which the ‘Red Army’ played into the hands of their critics – both in the unionist community and from their own community. While many of the ‘Red Army’s’ misdemeanours, which had led to the club being fined on occasion by the IFA[24], were no different to the problems caused by football fans in other parts of a rapidly declining UK there was often a dark tinge to their actions which put their activities beyond the pale of definitions surrounding footballing countercultures and ‘resistance identity’ in the 1970s. The ‘Red Army’s’ ominous reputation and the tensions within Northern Irish society which had been embedded since the late 1960s led to many Cliftonville matches becoming high security risks which brought the viability of Irish League football, when compared with the cost of policing certain games, into question. In August 1979 for example, Cliftonville travelled to Seaview, home of Crusaders FC in the tightly knit Protestant working class Shore Road area. The game was hyped up to the point of becoming a ‘moral panic’ due to previous violent encounters between rival fans. On the day of the game for example Deric Henderson wrote a histrionic front page headline for the Belfast Telegraph, stating that Northern Ireland was the ‘League Leader in Violence’. Henderson supplemented his dramatic headline with stark facts – violence and tension during and after soccer matches in Belfast had become the biggest football policing problem in the UK, the RUC would have 1,000 men in or around Seaview for the match which would see 5,000 spectators attending, including 1,000 from Cliftonville. The article claimed that policing the match would cost £25,000 whereas; in contrast a normal game at the far bigger Ibrox Park, home of Glasgow Rangers, would cost only £2,500.

Indeed Henderson appeared keen to stress that even an Old Firm game between Rangers and Celtic which saw the crowd split along sectarian lines, would not demand the same amount of policing as Cliftonville’s game at Crusaders. The key difference is that Irish League games in the 1970s were characterised by large numbers of fans with certain political sympathies traversing territories where they would not generally be welcome and often visiting grounds which were situated in areas where armed paramilitaries dominated communities. Officials from Liverpool and Arsenal were said to be ‘astonished’ at Henderson’s research.[25] In the event, there was no significant disturbance at the game. However a month later the ‘Red Army’ brought shame upon itself and a Belfast Telegraph editorial written before the Crusaders game would soon prove depressingly prescient. It stated,

‘It’s nothing short of tragic that the rise in violence should have coincided with the transformation in the fortunes of Cliftonville, which has added so much spice to the local game. The Red Army has made its team, in many ways but it could break it, just as easily.’[26]

On 15th September 1979 Cliftonville played Glentoran, a mainly Protestant team from east Belfast, at their home ground in north Belfast. New manager Jimmy Brown waved to a rapturous crowd and Malcolm Brodie wrote that,

‘Atmosphere certainly exists at Solitude. There is not a place quite like it these days in Irish football. A cauldron which bubbles and boils and today it was bathed in sunshine. From start to finish those fans, “supervised” by several hundred policemen , maintained the vocal support.’[27]

Having gone a goal down, John Platt responded to an earlier penalty miss by lashing home an equaliser with 82 minutes on the clock. Brodie describes how in the dying stages of the game Solitude was,

‘…a torrid, tension filled setting with the ‘Red Army’ raising their scarves high above their heads, swaying back and forwards and singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”…Solitude was no place today for the faint of heart.’[28]

Events after the game provided a gloomy coda to the remarkable story of Cliftonville’s rebirth in the 1970s and provide compelling evidence about the intentions of a small core within the new support base. The majority of the 2000 Cliftonville fans who had attended the Glentoran home match dispersed across the city and were generally well behaved. However a minority caused trouble at North Queen Street police station and York Street – both areas between the nationalist New Lodge and Belfast’s city centre. Another minority attacked the Antrim Road home of MP Gerry Fitt due to his often vocal opposition to the Provisional IRA. Only Fitt’s terrified wife and daughter were in the house at the time. The sullying effects that this episode had on the ‘Red Army’s’ reputation cannot be underestimated. In the Belfast Telegraph on the following Monday it was reported that Fitt and his family were considering leaving the house they had lived in for fifteen years. Unionist politicians made vocal their disgust at the terrace culture which was beginning to embrace the real politics of the day all too closely. William Bleakes, the spokesman for the Official Unionist District Councillors said that he and his colleagues would be raising the issue of trouble at and after football matches with the Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins. Bleakes would ask Atkins to consider banning certain matches if violence continued.[29] It was, of course, a bitterly ironic twist that it was Fitt who had publically defended the reputation of Cliftonville supporters when they were accused of vandalising houses by residents of Roden Street close to Windsor Park after a game against Linfield in the same year.[30]


The rise in support for Cliftonville FC in the 1970s provides a valuable avenue by which to study the social and political events of the decade in North Belfast. It has not often been the case in the history of world football that a team’s support has increased so drastically in correlation with the effects of political violence. Indeed the very ethos of the Cliftonville support base changed in an extremely short period of time. While the club itself, which seemed proud to wear the colour red, did not willingly encourage a ‘greening’ process; the nationalists who had supplanted the outgoing middle-class Protestants in the area seemed keen to assert their identity. In this sense Cliftonville and the ‘Red Army’ which emerged on the terraces at Solitude in the 1970s should not be divorced from the political events of the time. It was, of course, the population movements of the early 1970s in North Belfast which made the club’s miraculous transformation, but it was also the core ‘resistance identity’ that some supporters were keen to make the club a part of that provoked a negative reaction among those supporters of other teams who were mainly Protestant. It might be said that many unionists would have viewed the rise of the ‘Red Army’ with the same degree of suspicion and paranoia with which they greeted other social movements within the Catholic working class in Northern Ireland. In the case of the ‘Red Army’ story football can illuminate and expand upon existing narratives of the conflict and the social and political history of north Belfast during the turbulent period under investigation. It is advantageous to engage seriously with social and cultural factors when pursuing answers about the dynamics of political events in Northern Ireland between the strikes.

[1] Robert Curtis

[2] D. McKittrick et al, Lost Livesp.64

[3] Brothers John and Joseph McCaig and Dougald McCaughey

[4] ‘Attackers carve U.V.F. on arms of two schoolboys’, The Irish News 14th May 1971

[5] S. Boyne, ‘Families ready to evacuate’ Irish Press 6th July 1971

[6] ‘FLIGHT: A Report on Population Movement in Belfast during August, 1971’ (Belfast: Community Relations Commission Research Unit, 1971)

[7] J. Sugden and S. Harvie, ‘Sport and Community Relations in Northern Ireland’ (1995: Centre for the Study of Conflict, UU)

[8] J. Sugden and A. Bairner, Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1995) p.52

[9] News Letter August 3rd 1972

[10] News Letter August 5th 1972

[11] M. Dillon, The Shankill Butchers: The Real Story of Cold-Blooded Mass Murder (New York: Routledge, 1999) p.89

[13] M. Cronin, ‘Playing Away from Home: Identity in Northern Ireland and the Experience of Derry City Football Club’, National Identities, Vol.2, No.1, 2000, p.67

[14] Ibid. p.70

[15] Ibid. p.71

[16] Ibid.

[17] J. Sugden and A. Bairner, Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1995) p.84

[18] A. Bairner and P. Shirlow, ‘Territory, Politics and Soccer Fandom in Northern Ireland and Sweden’, Football Studies, Vol.3, No.1, 2000, p.12

[19] Castells

[20] Castells

[21] G. Armstrong and R. Giulianotti, ‘Afterword, Constructing Social Identities: Exploring the Structured Relations of Football Rivalries’, in G. Armstrong and R. Giulianotti, Fear and Loathing in World Football (Oxford: Berg, 2001) p.270

[22] H. McDonald, Colours: Ireland – From Bombs to Boom (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2004) p.30

[23] Ibid, p.42

[24] Ireland’s Saturday Night, April 14th 1979

[25] Belfast Telegraph, August 21st 1979

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ireland’s Saturday Night, September 15th 1979

[28] Ibid.

[29] Belfast Telegraph, 17th September 1979

[30] H. McDonald, Colours: Ireland – From Bombs to Boom (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2004) p.31


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