Can George Best save the peace process?

In Belfast, politicians and community activists are trying to turn the late footballer into an anodyne 'symbol of unity'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Even before my flight left Luton for Belfast, people were talking about The Funeral. A hostess was complaining to a colleague about having to work ‘all week and weekend’ because the Easyjet bosses have decided to put on ‘extra flights for the funeral’. The cabbie who drove me from Belfast International to my hotel asked if I was here for the funeral. When I said, ‘No, I’m a journalist doing a story’, he asked: ‘A story on the funeral?’ As I checked in, the hotel receptionist said I was lucky to be here on Tuesday, instead of this Thursday, Friday or Saturday. ‘All the beds in Belfast are booked up for the funeral’, she said.

The funeral they were referring to is, of course, George Best’s, which is expected to bring Belfast to a standstill this Saturday. It will take place at Stormont castle in east Belfast, and the papers are predicting a turnout of tens of thousands. It might seem odd that a footballer – no matter how great and iconic – should have his funeral at Stormont, traditionally the seat of political power, a huge imposing building that was infamously described in 1922 by James Craig, the first prime minister of the state, as a ‘Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’, and which has since hosted the peace process negotiations and debates about the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and is home now to the (currently suspended) Northern Ireland Assembly.

But in another way it is fitting that Best’s funeral will take place there – because in Northern Ireland he is fast being turned into a political symbol, a bland beacon of hope and unity, by cynical politicians and community activists who wouldn’t know what a football was if one hit them in the face.

It is not surprising that Best’s death has caused strong feelings in Belfast. He was born here and grew up on a Protestant working-class estate in east Belfast; his dad, Dick, still lives on the Cregagh Road estate where Best’s funeral cortege will begin its journey to Stormont. He played 37 games and scored nine goals for the Northern Ireland football team between 1964 and 1978. Jimmy, a 42-year-old fan, laid a Northern Ireland scarf outside the gates of Belfast City Hall, which has become a makeshift shrine to Best (while inside there are queues to sign two City-sponsored books of condolence). ‘Best was the best’, said Jimmy. At the George Best mural in east Belfast – painted two years ago as part of an attempt to ‘de-militarise’ the walls of this loyalist area, which traditionally were dominated by pictures of masked men with guns, or bulldogs – men of a certain age gathered to relive memories of Best’s footballing prowess.

Yet others, not known for their love of the beautiful game, are rushing to claim Best as one of theirs. According to excitable newspaper columnists and workers in Northern Ireland’s vast community relations industry, Best was a symbol of all that is best about Northern Ireland: he was, apparently, a man who could teach politicians a thing or two about unity and dignity and should be held up as a role model for the youth of both sides of Northern Ireland’s divide. The Belfast News Letter claimed that Best’s footballing skills were one of the few things that kept people going during the Troubles; his ‘genius was a catalyst that united people across Northern Ireland’s community divide during those bleak days’, this ‘Belfast Boy who brought light to Ulster during the dark times of the 1960s and 70s’ (1).

One community worker – Trevor Ringland of the peace group One Small Step – reckons the way Best lived his life should serve as a lesson for the New Northern Ireland. He doesn’t mean the footballing, drinking and womanising, of course, but rather the fact that Best was apparently in touch with his various identities. ‘He was a Belfast boy, he was an Ulsterman and no doubt he was comfortable with both his British and Irish identities, taking pride in each.’ (2) Ringland doesn’t explain how he came to possess such an insight into Best’s personal celebration of his dual identities; instead, this looks more like a case of forcing some basic facts about Best’s life (he was born in Northern Ireland but played a lot of football in England) into the often-divisive politics of identity that drive the peace process.

Desperate Unionist politicians have latched on to Best as an advert for what is good about their community. Today, old-style Unionism – whether it’s marching bands, Orange sashes or bulldog imagery – is very much out of fashion, so Best is being made into the new, polite, uncontroversial face of Ulster Protestantism. Michael McGimpsey of the Ulster Unionist Party claimed ‘George is a positive part of our past that we can look to when shaping our uncertain future. He symbolised the potential that this great Province has yet to fulfill’ (3). McGimpsey gives himself away with the ‘uncertain future’ bit of his eulogy: at a time of grave identity crisis for the UUP – once the dominant party in Northern Ireland, but which lost a whopping five of its six seats in Westminster in the General Election earlier this year – celebrating Best, who was Protestant but not really Unionist, an east Belfast lad but not a loyalist, gives them a rare point of connection with the people.

That is also the thinking behind the Best mural in east Belfast. It was part of a partly government-funded initiative to replace the old symbols of loyalist hard-headedness with more acceptable images of ‘loyalist culture’ – hence the new paintings of Best (but in his Man Utd rather than his Northern Ireland strip, strangely), and CS Lewis, the Belfast-born author of the Narnia novels, and, er, that’s about it. This is a desperate scrabble for a positive image of loyalism. But as Professor Bill Rolston, an expert on Northern Ireland’s murals, told me: ‘Best may be from east Belfast, but he was no loyalist.’

Others are using the occasion of Best’s funeral to put pressure on those Unionist types who are not playing ball with the peace process. There is a controversy over whether the British and loyalist flags still flying on streets in east Belfast since the marching season of the summer should be taken down so that they do not ‘cause offence’ to any of the mourners on Saturday (4). The Apprentice Boys are under pressure to cancel a parade due to take place on Saturday. The Daily Ireland – the new all-Ireland paper – went so far as to describe Best’s funeral as ‘an unexpected catalyst for positive development and change for the good’ if it forces the Apprentice Boys to rethink their behaviour. ‘For the Apprentice Boys – an institution which is widely perceived as old-fashioned and out-of-touch – this is too good an opportunity to miss’, the paper said, encouraging the group to respect the ‘Protestant cultural treasure’ that is Best instead of marching for the sake of it (5). Here, the new orthodoxy of publicly grieving for dead celebrities is being used to bash the old ways of diehard Unionists.

Everyone is rushing to claim a piece of Best. Ministers from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are queuing up to attend his funeral at Stormont, while writers and communitarians bang on about his funeral being a ‘good opportunity’, a ‘catalyst’ for the peace process, a grieving process that can ‘unite Northern Ireland’. One former teacher of Best’s even held him up as a role model for schoolkids across Northern Ireland, claiming he was a quiet and attentive pupil and his passing a reminder for why it’s important to take education seriously. All of this has little to do with Best and a lot to do with the state of politics in Northern Ireland. It is testament to the hollow nature of the peace process – and to the doubt and uncertainty about the future of Northern Ireland – that all sides are rushing to make a dead footballer into an all-purpose symbol of [enter your pet concern here].

A man who in life broke the mould by escaping east Belfast (a not-very-nice place, whatever people claim to the contrary) and becoming an international sports star has in death been made into a salutary lesson in the importance of staying in school and genuflecting to the politics of identity. That is an awfully big burden for a footballer to carry on his shoulders.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website.

Read on:

George Best: grief shouldn’t be a national sport, by Rob Lyons

(1) He was catalyst for unity, Belfast News Letter, 30 November 2005

(2) He was catalyst for unity, Belfast News Letter, 30 November 2005

(3) Leaders praise legendary soccer star Best, Irish Echo, 30 November 2005

(4) Latest episode in the marching saga, Daily Ireland, 30 November 2005

(5) Latest episode in the marching saga, Daily Ireland, 30 November 2005

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Topics Politics


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