Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Across the bridge of hope

Marc Rieper was not a man you could easily miss in a crowd. Standing over six feet tall and sporting the sort of physique which speaks of long hours training and conditioning. I saw him some years ago in the coffee shop of Glasgow airport and spoke to this articulate and polite Scandinavian for a few brief but very interesting minutes. I thanked him for his efforts at Celtic and we chatted about his memories of the club. Scoring in the League Cup Final against Dundee United at Ibrox was one as was winning the title in 1998. The summer of 1998 was somewhat euphoric for Celtic fans. The club had just won its first title in nine long and bitter years and the club seemed to be on the up again after wallowing in the doldrums for the best part of a decade. He then surprised me by speaking of the day when it hit him how much Celtic meant to some people and how little football meant in some circumstances…

In the north of Ireland there was hope of change too in that summer of 1998. The Good Friday agreement offered some hope for a peaceful future although a long road lay ahead after more than 30 years of pain on all sides.  The tragic events in Omagh on the 15th of August 1998 seemed set to destroy that fragile hope of peace. I make no political point about what occurred that day so please don’t get locked into knee jerk responses about blame or the technicalities of who did what and why. Anyone could argue that cause and effect go back 800 years in Ireland but sooner or later people must stop blaming history and be responsible for their own actions, be responsible to the future and not just to the past. This article isn’t about apportioning blame or making petty points. Rather, it merely observes the horror brought about by man’s inhumanity to his fellow man on that bright summer’s day 15 years ago.

 The Omagh explosion seemed to encapsulate the troubles in one awful moment. It killed and maimed young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Irish and foreign, Unionist and Nationalist. Among the 29 fatalities was a young lad from Buncrana in County Donegal. His name was Oran Doherty. This 8 year old Celtic fan died with his two young friends Sean McLaughlin and James Barker. Marc Rieper was asked by Celtic to represent the club at Oran’s funeral. The Celtic mad youngster was buried in the shirt of the team he loved so much. His coffin, which Rieper helped to carry, was draped in a Celtic flag. It was a difficult day for Marc, watching an entire community in mourning for 3 young boys who died so tragically. The usual dignitaries and politicians showed up, but this was about Buncrana coming to terms with the pain and loss and showing solidarity with the victims and their families. It is only fitting that Celtic stood shoulder to shoulder with them. As I said goodbye to Marc Rieper in Glasgow airport all those years ago, I could see the events of 1998 were still with him. How could they not be?

A short poem was read out at the funeral of the three Buncrana boys. It had been written by local school children and said simply…

Orange and green - it doesn't


United now…

Don't shatter our dream

Scatter the seeds of peace over

our land

So we can travel

Hand in hand across the

bridge of Hope…

Peace, of course, is more than just the absence of war and the north of Ireland is still limping forward slowly and tentatively. But Omagh didn’t destroy the peace process. It made the decent majority more determined to make it work. Marc Rieper saw the love a wee boy had for Celtic FC but he also saw how little football means when we are faced with such tragedies. Perhaps there is a lesson there for us all.

The bridge of hope is still standing.

RIP all victims of the troubles.

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