- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2002

BELFAST Soccer player Neil Lennon should have been captain of the Northern Ireland team that played against Cyprus last week, but a death threat forced him to leave the stadium under police escort just hours before the game.

The problem? Mr. Lennon is Catholic.

The Northern Ireland team, made up mostly of Protestant players, holds its games at Windsor Park in the Loyalist Village area of South Belfast.

The freeway that separates the Catholic St. James and Falls districts from the Loyalist Village might as well be the Grand Canyon.

This is the reality of sectarianism in Northern Ireland today, four years after the Good Friday Peace Agreement that was intended to end confrontation between the two communities.

"My parents were really distraught," said Mr. Lennon, whose family lives in the bitterly divided town of Lurgan, County Armagh. "My 10-year-old daughter doesn't know about this. I'll try and keep her away from it."

Lurgan is the base of a Protestant paramilitary group called the Loyalist Volunteer Force, which gunned down journalist Martin O'Hagan last year.

The force has denied issuing the death threat that forced Mr. Lennon out of the national team's match, but few people believe them.

It's not the first time Mr. Lennon has been targeted by Northern Ireland's soccer fans.

In a game against Norway, some fans chanted, "We've got a Provo in our team," a reference to the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and graffiti in a Protestant area of Belfast proclaims "Neil Lennon R.I.P." next to a hangman's noose.

Although condemned by all political parties, the soccer incident highlights the growing trend of Protestant paramilitaries to disrupt everyday life in the province.

Both postal workers and staff in the Mater Hospital in North Belfast have sought assurances in the past few weeks that they will not be targeted by Protestant paramilitaries after receiving death threats.

In a chilling development, the largest Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Defense Association, has removed John Gregg as leader of the East Antrim Brigade for not being militant enough.

Mr. Gregg was responsible for pumping three bullets into Gerry Adams in a failed assassination attempt in 1984. He later said his only regret was that he didn't kill Mr. Adams.

The move is seen as an indication of the growing power of Johnny Adair, who runs the 2nd Battalion, C Company in the notorious Lower Shankill Road, and the new extremism of younger members of the UDA.

All politicians in Northern Ireland accept that the 1998 Peace Agreement is not working for many people in Belfast and that things are liable to get worse.

Speaking on Sunday at a service to mark the 80th anniversary of the death of Irish patriot Michael Collins, Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Mark Durkin acknowledged that the agreement "now faces difficulty and danger" but insisted there was no alternative.

"We must all address now the real fears for the agreement itself," he said.

For Mr. Lennon, the dream of playing for the national team has ended. He said that for the sake of his family, he no longer is willing to play international soccer.

"Obviously, I can't put them through this every time. So I've thought long and hard about it, and I've decided that I probably won't go back to play for Northern Ireland," he said.

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