The Steel and Sons cup is a big deal in the world of Ulster soccer with the final played on Christmas morning. It may have crossed the minds of the players that some in west Belfast might not like them playing a game against the RUC. But only a minority, they surely told themselves. There was a ceasefire after all. A Good Friday Peace Agreement. Had Gerry Adams not sat down with David Trimble? Did he not cross the Irish sea frequently to shake the hand of the ultimate boss of all Britain's police forces, Mr Tony Blair?
Perhaps the language they heard on the day of the Agreement might have lulled them into a false sense of security. Remember those fine words: a new beginning, partnership, putting the old bitterness to one side so that we could all work together. God help their innocence. Enter Sinn Fein. Within a day or so the Sinn Feiners roared down from the high ground to declare that the match should not go ahead. "Sinn Fein is publicly calling on Donegal Celtic not to play against the RUC," said one of the party's local councillors, Gerard O'Neill.
Now when a Sinn Fein councillor in their area makes a declaration like this, the footballers know they are in serious trouble. And so they had a vote among their members. They held an extraordinary meeting of the club and voted by a margin of 148 to 70 to go ahead with the game. The democratic will of the members said play. And then the pressure began to build.
Sinn Fein says there was a backlash from the nationalist community. Insiders say the heavies who enforce the will of the republican movement - the IRA - got in on the act. Provo muscle was brought to bear. Do it our way or else. The club backed down, without putting the matter to another vote.
The club's official line was that "unreasonable pressure" was being brought to bear. That is a certain euphemism for threats of violence. It does not take too much imagination to conjure up the scenarios that might have been placed before individual members. The club house that might be burned down, the car that might be torched, the streets it might not be safe to walk down. The kind of stuff you hear from bullies everywhere but backed up by the fearsome reputation of the IRA. Only a fool would have decided to play on in those circumstances. For the record, Sinn Fein describe the reports of intimidation as "absolute nonsense". Sure lads. Donegal Celtic simply saw the error of their ways and pulled back, overwhelmed by the deeply felt anger of the masses.
But Donegal Celtic didn't jump, they were pushed. Without the controversy generated by Sinn Fein, the game would have gone ahead. A lot of nationalists would certainly have disapproved but the game would have not have been stopped. Donegal Celtic would probably have won and gone on to compete for the cup on Christmas morning. But Sinn Fein had another agenda and the small ambitions of a bunch of junior footballers did not rate highly on the party's list of priorities.
This is about hard politics and control. Sinn Fein has had the RUC in its sights (metaphorically of course, the more literal expression being left to the IRA) for many years. Having agreed a brave compromise on Good Friday, indefinitely postponing its sacred goal of a United Ireland, the party needs to deliver on issues where it has some leverage over the government. Reform of the police is at the very top of the list, identified by Gerry Adams as a core function of the peace agreement. The RUC is not now and never has been a cross community institution. Only 8 per cent of its 13,000 members are Catholic (this a function not only of minority mistrust but also the IRA's ruthless targeting of Catholic officers).
But as I say, this is not only about the future of the RUC. It also has to do with control. Donegal Celtic made the mistake of challenging the republican autocrats. Did they really think that the boys in the ski-masks who spend their weekends breaking the arms and legs of "anti-social" teenagers were going to let a puny football club best them? Was the organisation which had spent 30 years trying to kill RUC men about to allow a Catholic team to play games with off-duty policemen? Never. The IRA may be on ceasefire but, as Gerry Adams reminded us, it has not gone away. It is also having to look over its shoulders at those who regard themselves as the last of the true republicans. These are the hardliners who left the IRA and planted the Omagh bomb, who still support armed struggle and would of course regard any nationalist contacts with the RUC as treachery. Perhaps the IRA felt it needed to look extra tough on this occasion.
What is disturbingly implicit in the Sinn Fein position is the belief that only republicans have suffered. Therefore the police must be ostracised because they caused pain to nationalists. They arrested, they beat, they shot. They baton charged mourners at funerals where armed IRA pallbearers appeared or threatened to appear. All of these things happened. I witnessed some of them myself. But has Sinn Fein forgotten that 300 policemen were killed and thousands injured, most of them at the hands of the IRA?
I reported on enough police funerals, sat listening to their widows long enough to know the depth of anguish felt in that closely knit community. The RUC paid a terrible price. And it is worth recording that the RUC dead were, according to Sinn Fein's own definition, our fellow Irishmen and women. They were drawn from the Ulster Protestant community with whom the Catholics of Ireland, north and south, must reconcile if a United Ireland is to move from the status of aspiration to reality.
Playing a football match with the police would have been a small step towards reconciliation. Even allowing it to go ahead with republican reservations would at least have been an expression of tolerance. Instead we got cynicism and atavism. The politics of fear triumphed once again. For the record, Donegal Celtic forfeited the game.
Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondentReuse content