THEY’RE going to play the English national anthem, God Save the King, at Windsor Park before the eagerly-anticipated Irish Cup Final clash between Linfield and Cliftonville. (Yes, Stewarty, it is the English anthem: the Jocks and Taffs have both booted it into Row Z.) 

In plumping for GSTK, the IFA have decided that the best way to start the biggest game on their calendar is in a maelstrom of booing, resentment, bitterness and anger. And when you think about it, there’s no better way to kick off the North’s showcase soccer occasion. It’s what that noted Dublin hurler Lord Carson would have wanted.

I was at the Cliftonville-Coleraine game in 2018 when the anthem was played to the deafening boos of Reds fans while the Cliftonville players bowed their heads in protest. I proposed to remain silent about my attitude to booing the anthem that day, except to say that I was invited on to the Nolan Show to talk about the match on Monday but couldn’t do it as my voice was gone.

The Reds wrote to the IFA before the game, asking them not to play the anthem. It was quite a brief letter, the contents of which I can exclusively reveal today:

Dear IFA,
WTAF? If you play God Save the Queen at Windsor it’s going to make everybody really angry when everybody should be really happy. Wisaac Isaac.

The IFA, in their wisdom, have decided that it's more important for loyal players and fans to feel a bit Englishy before the match than it is for everybody to feel as though they're all together as part of a big and special day. ‘Football For All’ is the IFA’s inspirational motto; its lesser-known codicil, I am now in a position to tell you, is ‘But Pre-Match Entertainment Only for Some’.

I’m not going to lie, I’m surprised by this decision, given that the blokes at the IFA had already done the heavy-lifting in relation to preparing their loyal base for another sign of the changing times. Instead, they’ve decided to use the match to highlight their changing minds. Hit by a lightning flash of reality in 2013, the suits decided to scrub the anthem for the Cliftonville-Glentoran Irish Cup Final, saying that now was the time to encourage “a politically neutral environment” at Parc de Windsor. After the expected storm of protest from livid loyalists, the match went ahead, the Cock and Hens won and the anthem was forgotten about. But instead of banking that, the IFA have since decided to keep bicycle-kicking itself in the face by doing the Hokey-Cokey with the anthem. And, of course, going by their own 2013 terminology, the playing of the anthem renders Windsor Park on May 4 a non-neutral political environment.

There’s a compelling precedent for the chaps in the IFA ties at Windsor Avenue, should they choose to heed it any time this century. In 2022 BBC Ulster decided to scrub its live Twelfth coverage of Protestants drinking heavily. Not surprisingly, the cry of “Aux barricades!” went up across the Pravince, militia regiments were raised, News Letter leave was cancelled and Loyal Ulster braced itself – for another climbdown. Last year, only scattered mutinous mutterings were heard; this year I fully expect total radio silence on the biggest insult to the loyalist people since the last biggest insult.

It’s how it works: You make a brave decision to change things that people who don’t like change don’t like and you stick to your guns; you take heavy return fire at first, but that peters out fairly quickly, the enemy runs out of ammunition and you win. Ask BBC Ulster.

But the Irish Football Association decided to put the Northern back in Ireland by taking a hard-fought win and putting out the youth team for the return leg. And so here we are arguing about the English national anthem being played at IFA events in 2024. For comparison, Queen’s University dropped the anthem in 1994 – just the thirty years ago – because the seething resentment engendered by half the audience standing and half remaining seated meant students were graduating with varying degrees of PTSD.

Should we be surprised? The IFA still doesn’t allow games on Sunday. One or two games in the cup were trialled this year, but that only succeeded in reminding people who had forgotten about the Sunday ban that the IFA is as Sabbatarian as the TUV; and it all seemed rather like the Victorian chimney sweep industry stopped putting eight-year-olds up chimneys for a day and then started again.

The Bible tells us “Folly is joy to him who lacks sense, but an understanding man walks straight.” (Proverbs 15:21.) If that’s the case – and the Sabbath rule tells us that the gentlemen of Windsor Avenue are God-fearing, Scripture-reading folk – then the IFA needs a few sessions on the treatment table before it can start walking, never mind running, towards the future.