In 1996, the IRA exploded a bomb in the centre of Manchester. Years later, former commander of that organisation-turned politician, Martin McGuinness sat down with a Manchester United fanzine to discuss his love for the club. It was a peculiarity probably confined to the north of England and Irish mentality, writes Kevin Brannigan.

In 1996, the IRA exploded a bomb in the centre of Manchester. Years later, former commander of that organisation-turned politician, Martin McGuinness sat down with a Manchester United fanzine to discuss his love for the club. It was a peculiarity probably confined to the north of England and Irish mentality, writes Kevin Brannigan

Old Trafford. Sunday, June 16th 1996. A rampant German side, led by captain Jürgen Klinsmann, all but knock Russia out of Euro ’96 with a blistering three goal unanswered second half rout to cement the Germans at the top of Group C, that tournament’s ‘Group of Death’, which also housed the Italians and the eventual finalists that summer alongside Germany, the Czech Republic.

Played in front of a packed Sunday afternoon crowd at Old Trafford of 50,700 mostly German supporters, the match came just over 24 hours after the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) detonated the largest bomb to hit English soil since the Nazi’s Second World War blitz of British towns and cities.

Targeting the city’s financial heart, the bomb was estimated by insurers to have caused over £700 million in damages while the human cost resulted in 212 injuries.

One infamous photo captured at the time of the evacuation of the city shows a young bride, Mandy Hudson and her husband-to-be Franklyn Swanston in full flight through the city’s streets. Unfortunately, when they did finally manage to tie the knot, the marriage broke down after six months. Much like IRA cease-fires throughout the ’90’s.


GAA playing brothers from Longsight

Manchester at the time of the bombing was the centre of ‘Cool Britannia’. Led by two former GAA-playing brothers from Longsight, the products of Irish immigrants Peggy and Thomas Gallagher, brothers Noel and Liam were swaggering at the top of the world with a media, who couldn’t get enough of their whirlwind of drugs, ballads and violence, following at close quarters.

In June 1996, Oasis were gearing up for two August nights at Knebworth that were to become the defining moments for a youth movement that had swept Britain just when the e-infused rave scene had made guitars look as if they had had their day.

Despite the Union Jack aesthetics, Oasis like those other sons of Manchester, The Smiths, were an extension of Ireland. But a creation that could never have been possible outside of an industrialised multi-cultural petri dish such as Manchester.

The end of the 1995/’96 Premier League season had also seen Manchester United return to the top of English football with an angry young man from Cork powering their bid from midfield and a less angry young man, but who also happened to be from Cork, chipping in with goals from full back.

Roy Keane and Denis Irwin were beginning to add their names alongside those of Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran and Liam Whelan to the long list of Irish from north and south who had excelled at the Theatre of Dreams.

So how did the bombing affect relations in a city that hummed to accents from Cobh to the Creggan?

Historian Brian Hanley, who has written numerous books on the IRA in all its guises and who has also contributed to Manchester United fanzine ‘United we Stand’, remembers a mixed response.

“The Warrington bomb in 1993 had a much bigger negative and emotional impact. A fella I knew who brought a tricolour to (Manchester United) matches constantly was told to take it down that day.”

“Manchester United were at Maine Road (home of Manchester City) that day with the ‘No Surrender’ (a loyalist battle cry) chants ringing out.”

“Manchester United and Celtic played a friendly in May 1994 (Mark Hughes’ testimonial) and there was a lot of bad feeling about the rebel songs. There had been a big love-in for a while between the two but it was on the wane by then.”

“The Manchester bomb was a bit different- luckily nobody was killed for a start. Secondly it was after the breakdown of the ceasefire but things seemed to be coming to an end. There wasn’t a general IRA campaign.”

Anti-Irish prejudice

“The mid-1970s were very different, bombings were a weekly event. British soldiers were being killed every week, there was a strong and public far-right (especially in the British Midlands), and anti-Irish prejudice was more acceptable. Look at television shows like ‘The Comedians’ for example. By the 1990s it wasn’t as intense.”

In the immediate aftermath, Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, stated that he was ‘shocked and saddened’ by the events.

Some 16 years after the bombing, which quite dramatically re-arranged the face of Manchester city centre, a now defunct Manchester United fanzine; ‘Red Issue’, sat down with former PIRA Commander and then Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness to discuss the bombing and also his allegiance to the red half of the city.

Image: WikiCommons
Image: WikiCommons

Red Issue: “One of the biggest issues that’s been brought to Manchester in terms of Irish politics in recent times is the bombing in 1996 which a lot of people still look on with distaste. That was during the Euro 96 tournament – Ireland almost qualified for that, losing a play-off against Holland. Do you think that would’ve happened if Ireland were in the tournament?”

Martin McGuinness: “Well that’s something that I don’t know. Over the course of some twenty-five years, all of us lived through terrible times with many terrible events taking place both on the island of Ireland and in England and a lot of people suffered. I think that the situation in 1996 obviously came at a time when very strenuous efforts were being made by myself and Gerry Adams and others to bring about an end to the conflict and to bring about peace negotiations. And of course, we did succeed in 1994 in convincing the IRA that they should call a halt to their campaign and put in place a ceasefire, which they did. Unfortunately then, for various reasons, that collapsed two years later but we made very strenuous efforts again to get it back on track. I think that period of 25 years where we were effectively in a state of conflict is best remembered as something that is a highly regrettable period of our relationships.”

A football fanzine sitting down to interview a former leader of an organisation whose actions caused massive damage to their city is a peculiarity probably confined to the north of England and Irish mentality.

Image: @JamesMcC14
Image: @JamesMcC14

John Hume and Paddy Crerand

This wasn’t the first time Manchester United and Irish Republicanism had crossed paths. In November 2000, United took on Derry City after former SDLP leader, and like Martin McGuinness, lifelong Derry City fan, John Hume had written to Alex Ferguson seeking a friendly with his all-conquering side to help wipe some of Derry’s debts.

The Glaswegian readily agreed, sending across a United XI featuring a young John O’Shea who was still a few years off nut-megging Luis Figo in the Champions League.

The match helped save Derry City from the clutches of an inland-revenue winding up order and also brought the friendship of John Hume and Manchester United European Cup winning legend Paddy Crerand back into public focus.

In his 2007 autobiography ‘Never Turn The Other Cheek’, Crerand, the son of Glaswegian Irish immigrants, claimed to have met with John Hume and also members of the Derry IRA Command Staff, including an unmasked Martin McGuinness, in 1975 whilst in Derry trying to help solve a split in the Nationalist community which had erupted over a rents strike which had led to some homes having their water and heating cut off. The IRA wanted to press on with the strike while Hume and the SDLP were looking for a resolution.

In an interview at the time of the book launch Crerand recalled the meeting.

“Martin McGuinness was obviously the leader of the pack. I just went in to talk to them. They weren’t political at all. They were all working-class lads and right, left or centre, all they wanted was the Brits out of Ireland. It was not a political movement, and only became political afterwards. “I said to them: ‘Why won’t you speak to John Hume?'”

“I pointed out to them the people who were against the Republicans were all together, ‘but you lot are all fighting with each other. What chance have you got? If you all get together and become one, it gives you a bigger voice’, but they didn’t want to know.”

“We spoke mostly about football, but they were adamant they were going to do their own thing. I told them they were all fucking mad.”

“You get six Irishmen in a pub anywhere and they’ll all fall out with each other, and they were all just like that.”

Paddy Crerand also claims to have opened the IRA’s eyes to the political road some six years before the ‘Armalite and Ballot Box’ approach became Sinn Fein and the IRA’s breakthrough strategy.

“I told them they needed to become political and renounce violence if they wanted to achieve their aims, and that the only way of solving their problems was by dialogue, and by not shooting each other.”

“I didn’t think of it as a courageous thing. It was 2am and the army was everywhere and the relative who had come with me was petrified, especially when we had to drive back across the border at that time in the morning, which was not a healthy thing to do.”

However, in his Red Issue interview Martin McGuinness claims to have no memory of the meeting as described by Paddy Crerand.

Martin McGuinness: “I do have a recollection of meeting Pat Crerand but I have to say I have no recollection of the circumstances as described by Pat in his book. I was actually quite surprised to read what was said because the request for Pat to meet with Republicans was accepted very graciously and that was an opportunity to have a chat to Pat about the certain politic circumstances that existed in Derry at the time of course. Pat had a real interest in that because his connections go to Donegal and he’s a regular visitor there and someone who’s tremendously admired, and I have a tremendous admiration for Pat as well and the role that he played at Manchester United but think there’s a bit of literary license there in relation to the meeting that took place between Republicans and himself. But I’m not being critical in any way of that. I know that people who sell books, sometimes the people that they write the books for like to see fairly sensational items in the book and I think this was sensationalised.”

Red Issue: “What were the circumstances of your meeting with him?”

Martin McGuinness: “What happened was that I was told Pat Crerand was about and he wanted to meet with Republicans. At the time things were very difficult in Derry and there was a conflict going on with the city being occupied by thousands of British soldiers. Pat wanted to hear from a Republican perspective what was happening, it was as simple as that. It was absolutely nothing to do with settling disputes between the SDLP and Sinn Fein or Republicans. I was amazed when I read that.”

Republican support for English football teams

Perhaps to an English reader a former PIRA leader who spent his life from his early teens at war with the British State having affection for anything English will come as a surprise but as Brian Hanley points out Republican support for English football teams is “one of the great ironies”.

“I think the only surprising thing about McGuinness is that his brother played Gaelic football for Derry. The GAA was historically very weak in Derry city. It was a soccer town. The older generation of republicans (1922-1960s) would have generally been hostile to ‘foreign’ games but when these things became a mass movement, especially in urban areas then it’s no surprise there were loads of fans of English teams. There are dozens of anecdotes about Provos who were United, Liverpool, Everton…fans”

“One anecdote has Bobby Sands being routinely mocked in Long Kesh for being the only Aston Villa fan incarcerated.”

McGuinness explained to Red Issue where his support for Manchester United originated from.

Red Issue: “How does someone like yourself come to be a United fan?”

Martin McGuinness: “Obviously like all sports fans I was deeply affected by the fact that the Manchester United team were involved in such a terrible tragedy in Munich airport. And the fact that there were players from Ireland on the team who lost their lives and others who were badly injured like Harry Gregg. I suppose it began then and it has remained steady ever since. I have only really supported three teams in my life – Derry City Football Club, Manchester United and the Derry senior Gaelic football teams. I’m a big Gaelic football fan – that’s my first love – but I’ve always been a supporter of Manchester United.”

Red Issue: “Have you ever been to any games?”

Martin McGuinness: “I was only at Old Trafford once a number of years ago, and it was a very unfortunate result. United were playing Chelsea and Chelsea beat them 3-0. I had my two sons with me, one of whom is a Liverpool supporter and the other has remained loyal to the family tradition, supporting United. That was a great visit, and after the match I met with Denis Irwin. It was a real delight to be there for the first time.”

Red Issue: “Amongst some Irish people can there sometimes be a sense of treachery about Irish people such as yourself following English sports as opposed to GAA?”

Martin McGuinness: “No, I know many, many, many loyal followers of Gaelic Athletic Association who are also supporters of Premiership teams. And I suppose the vast bulk of them would be supporters of Manchester United so I don’t see it as a contradiction at all. It’s something that we’ve all grown up with. On the island of Ireland people get the BBC so anybody that’s interested in sports will tune in to match of the day and watch the rugby, some might even watch the cricket. I’m also a fan of cricket and I think that our politics – certainly my politics are certainly Irish republican and as someone who wants to see the peaceful and democratic reunification of my country – I don’t see any contradiction in holding those beliefs and holding a fondness for sportsmen and football teams that I admire.”

According to one British political journalist during breaks in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement talks, McGuinness would use the topic of Manchester United to break up the heavy weight lingering in the room.

Again, another anecdote. But true or not it demonstrates the universal language of football and its ability to transcend even the most insurmountable of barriers.

“So, did anyone watch the game last night?”

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