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August 4, 2012
Guest contribution by Anthony May, who is currently in his final year as PhD student at Kingston University (UK) and whose research examines cultural nationalism in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Football is vitally important to the culture of both Scotland and Northern Ireland, and rituals and traditions associated with football have become an integral part of the identities expressed by communities in each territory.
Football has become a key site for the development of alternative hegemonies that challenge the official ideology of the United Kingdom. A majority of football supporters in both Scotland and Northern Ireland do not think of themselves as British. Those football fans who do identify as British in Scotland (primarily supporters of Glasgow Rangers) have reported that they feel like outcasts. Supporters of Glasgow Celtic, a club traditionally associated with Scotland’s Irish community, continue to express an Irish, rather than a Scottish or British identity. Support for the Scottish national team tends to come from outside the ‘Old Firm’.
One might expect the Loyalist community of Northern Ireland to report British identities, but a high level of the support for the Northern Ireland football team is actually drawn from this community! Northern Ireland national team games provide an opportunity for the expression of a specifically Northern Irish identity; vocal opposition to official state policies is a key part of the rituals seen at Northern Ireland matches. Inversely, members of the predominantly Catholic Nationalist community tend to support the Republic of Ireland as the Northern Ireland team is seen as a repository of Loyalist identity. Nationalists remain culturally and politically opposed to their Loyalist counterparts.
Many studies of nationalism and sport look at the ways in which nation-states use sport to promote official nationalist hegemony. My work is different in that it examines the way in which culture affects nationalism, rather than taking the view that nationalism is a state ideology which attempts to determine culture. I see nationalism as a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” phenomenon and culture plays a vital role in determining identities. States do attempt to utilise sport to promote their own interests but this is not always successful. It is certainly not successful in either Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) have made some capital out of the decisions of Northern Irish Catholic footballers to represent the Republic of Ireland, citing cultural affinity with the Republic rather than Northern Ireland. For the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is it more difficult to associate themselves with the Loyalists who follow the Northern Ireland team, as they are committed to a more moderate Unionist message at the moment. It can be said that football culture runs counter to that promoted by political parties in both nations.
In sum, my research shows that culture is not always the tool of politicians and does not always serve the state. Football culture offers a popular alternative to official or dominant hegemonies, and its importance is growing all the time. Through the rituals and symbols of fandom, football supporters create an unofficial but influential culture that is vitally important to communities across Europe.