Irish fans take on perfidious France
Jason Walsh popped along to the loud, green and peculiar anti-Henry protests outside the French embassy in Dublin.
On Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 November, crowds gathered in the so-called ’embassy belt’ of the leafy Dublin suburb of Ballsbridge. They were on a mission to make the world a fairer place, to get a foreign government to undo a great injustice. No, they weren’t there to have a prisoner of conscience released or to show their opposition to a war of aggression – they were there to demand a rematch of Ireland’s ill-fated World Cup qualifier with France.
Since Ireland lost the game last Wednesday due to Thierry Henry’s handball, virtually nothing else has been talked about here. In the pubs and in the press, Ireland is united, at least on the issue that France should concede to a rematch. Such is the depth of feeling that even rugby players are commenting, despite the fact that rugby and soccer fans have never seen eye to eye. Ireland international rugby player Tommy Bowe made a wisecrack about Henry on a sports programme on national radio station, Newstalk. Thankfully, the presenters responded by playing a clip of former Ireland soccer international Roy Keane telling people to ‘get over it’.
Around 200 people turned up for the protest on Saturday, bedecked in Ireland regalia, some chanting ‘If you hate Henry clap your hands’ while organisers used megaphones to blast their message into the French embassy. It’s hard to see what the protesters thought they would achieve – it’s not as though the ambassador was going to call up the French Football Association and demand a rematch, lest Ireland start blockading French goods.
One protester told me the aim was to ‘make our voices heard’, a sentiment reminiscent of the depoliticised ‘not in my name’ protests that surrounded the Iraq War. ‘We need to take a stand on these things’, he said. Another said ‘it is a matter of honour. If the boot was on the other foot we’d be outside the Dáil [Ireland’s parliament] demanding a rematch on behalf of the French fans.’ (Really?)
Of course, as representatives of foreign governments, embassies are often targets for protests. In 2006, Iran’s embassy in Dublin was daubed with graffiti; the US and Israeli embassies are the sites of occasional protests about the Iraq War and Palestine; the gates to the Chinese embassy are home to an around-the-clock relay protest by members of the Falun Gong cult. All of these protests, however – no matter how formalised and set piece-like they have become – are at least rooted in some kind of political dispute.
L’Affaire Henry, by contrast, cannot be described as a political issue, though it is now taking on commonplace cod-political dimensions: boycotts of French wine have been mooted (though most corner stores in Ireland don’t stock much French wine anyway, instead specialising in flogging nasty rot-gut at a huge mark-up). Some fans have talked about boycotting Gillette products, because Henry advertises them. What next? A campaign of deportation for snails? Escargot out!
When a real, popular political protest occurs outside an embassy, it is more than obvious. For example, on 12 May 1981, 2,000 people attempted to smash into the British embassy in Dublin. This was the day that IRA prisoner Francis Hughes died in the Maze prison after 59 days on hunger strike. A month later, on 18 July, a riot broke out at the embassy when demonstrators and police clashed, resulting in over 200 people being injured. By contrast, after the L’Affaire Henry protesters left, I asked a policeman what he made of it all: ‘They were serious all right’, he said. ‘But it’s not like they were throwing rocks or anything.’
The protests were certainly motivated by a heartfelt grievance, but the fact that they occurred at all is a little troubling. They appear to have been spontaneous in nature, although a Dublin radio station, FM 104, quickly involved itself, smelling free publicity. On Friday afternoon, before the fairly big Saturday protests, around 30 protesters had turned up outside the French embassy on a double-decker bus decked out in green with a frog mascot (1). On Saturday there were some French citizens amongst the 200 or so protesters, keen to show solidarity with their adopted homeland. By Sunday the protest had dwindled away to almost nothing: two adults and two children.
Ireland fans protest at the French Embassy in Dublin on Saturday
One man, Michael Moore, said he felt the protest was futile but he had been inspired by his son: ‘I was at the match in Paris and we were resigned. It was only when my son told me about the Facebook campaign that I got interested. The idealism of youth’, he said, smiling. Nearly 400,000 people have signed up to the Facebook page demanding a rematch.
Saturday’s protest grew as a result of word being spread on Facebook, but like many internet-centric phenomena, the protest felt empty of meaning. It was more like a so-called ‘flash mob’ than an angry mob. It is tempting to suggest that somebody should give the protesters a happy slap, but the real blame lies not with passionate football fans – most of whom are genuinely angry – but with Ireland’s politicians and their unwitting cheerleaders in the press, who have fouled the public in two ways.
Firstly, it was politicians such as premier Brian Cowen and minister for finance Brian Lenihan who turned Henry’s hand-job into a political issue. Ireland’s unpopular lame-duck government lacks the moral authority to institute the cuts in living standards it says are necessary, and traditional appeals to republican rhetoric are failing to connect with the public. For example, Lenihan’s description of shoppers crossing the border to avail of lower prices in Northern Ireland as ‘unpatriotic’ was taken seriously by many in the press, but mocked by the public.
The collapse of Ireland’s traditional Catholicism, meanwhile, means that the government needs to manufacture a shared national feeling in any way it can, and as the wheels begin to fall off the ‘we all have to share the pain of the recession’ trope, all it has come up with so far is ‘We wuz robbed by Henry!’
Secondly, as a colleague commented to me: ‘There has been a dangerous vein of pent-up anger in this country for over a year now, and this is one of the first widespread public expressions.’ Indeed. There has been a number of protests in Ireland recently, but none of them has come to anything (2). The government pushed ahead with its austerity plan while people watched their salaries get slashed or lost their jobs. All the while, the banks were being bailed out to the tune of billions of Euros, a fact which enraged many people but left them rudderless after the opposition parties failed to suggest any significantly better alternatives. L’Affaire Henry has allowed some of this pent-up anger to surface.
However, while the strong emotions felt by football fans are understandable, confusing sport and politics is another matter altogether. One protestor told the Irish Times that the economy was at stake in L’Affaire Henry: ‘There should be a suit brought by the FAI against FIFA. Ireland will lose about €20million for not going to the World Cup. We should demand at least half that money back.’ (3) This sentiment not only has nothing to do with sport – it also echos the popular, but incorrect, idea that the Ireland squad’s performance at the 1990 World Cup was responsible for Ireland’s economic boom.
It is also exactly the kind of economic illiteracy that readers of Irish newspapers are subjected to on a daily basis. In politicising Henry’s handball, the Irish political and media class have effectively encouraged people to express their general feeling of anger in relation to football rather than in the political realm. Never mind Thierry Henry, it’s time to show Ireland’s political class the red card.
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. He is the editor of forth, a new online current affairs magazine.
Brendan O’Neill argued that the Irish invest too much in football. Duleep Allirajah recounted, in the style of The Damned Utd, the story of how Thierry Henry jetted off to Barcelona and discussed Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’. Mick Hume considered the strange case of l’affaire Zidane, and reflected on how football has gone from being viewed as a slum sport to a cross between religion, rock‘n’roll and royalty. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.
(1) Fans protest at French embassy, Irish Times, 20 November 2009
(3) Irish fans march to French embassy, Irish Times, November 22, 2009
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