It is different in Derry

It is different in Derry

A COUPLE of weeks ago, Darren Kelly decided to share his private thoughts with an audience on twitter. So far, so innocent.

But in the digital age word quickly spreads and no sooner had Kelly described his fellow Derryman, Martin McGuinness, as 'a legend' than the backlash began.

Calls for his resignation as manager of Oldham Athletic, a job he only recently acquired, grew increasingly loud with some supporters promising to boycott the League One club's games while Kelly remained their manager. In response Oldham's owner offered unhappy fans a refund on their season-tickets.

So for those of us wondering precisely how Irish people are viewed in England then this incident provided us a glimpse through the window of people's hearts. Back in Ulster, meanwhile, there was some predictable name calling until Kelly followed up his tweet with a deeper explanation of what he meant.

“I’m not political," said Kelly. "The only thing I want in Northern Ireland is peace. Martin McGuinness is about bringing peace to Northern Ireland. My admiration for Martin McGuinness is for his work in the peace process."

While that diluted the controversy at home, the issue has not gone away in Lancashire with a former British Army soldier telling the Oldham Chronicle he could no longer 'support a club whose manager describes a terrorist as ‘a legend’.” Others have set up a Facebook page,‘Sack IRA supporting Darren Kelly as Oldham Athletic manager’.

In response, Kelly insists the issue has been blown out of proportion.  “There is nothing in it whatsoever," he told the News Letter. "In terms of the tweet, there is nothing political in it at all. I am a family man...that is what my life is about and I have no political views.

“I understand if people are concerned, but there is nothing in that comment.”

The people who don't understand where Kelly is coming from are the very people who don't understand Derry.

As a city, it stands alone - geographically at least. "We're isolated up here," Stephen Kenny, a Dubliner who managed Derry City over two spells in the last decade. "Dublin is down there, Belfast over there and neither seem to care one bit about us.

"This is a unique place. People stand by one another. It might be a city, but it can have a village's sense of looking out for their neighbour."

That was precisely what McGuinness was doing when he sent Kelly a photograph of his mother, Peggy Kelly, that was taken at a Bloody Sunday commemoration. Kelly's uncle, Michael Kelly, was shot dead in Bloody Sunday. “People who know what I’m about know that there is absolutely nothing sinister or violent or whatever in my body," said the former Derry City defender.

“I just want to be judged on results. I left Northern Ireland a long time ago...for this to come out the way it did is absolute nonsense.”

Yet while he - and Ulster - tries to escape the past, some don't want to forget. Nor can they accept that McGuinness is a much different man now to the one whose youth was filled with violence.

He risked more than just his political reputation when he moved to the ballot box, however. The road to peace could have cost him his life. By passionately believing he was doing the right thing, he brought the majority of extremists with him.

While his political career has been widely chronicled, his support for Derry City is largely unknown. One of his brothers once played for the club and his son-in-law, Sean Hargan, shared a dressing-room with Kelly. Often seen at the Brandywell, McGuinness is regarded by players as a genuine fan, not a politician seeking cheap publicity.

Kelly knows him relatively well and in any democracy, he has a right to express his point of view, particularly if he follows up by explaining that his admiration is for McGuinness the peacemaker, not McGuinness the former soldier.

Yet, this is England where the IRA's unpopularity remains high even after two decades of peace. Kelly is entitled to freedom of speech. His new team could do with some decent results, though.

Some want him out of a job before he has even started in it.