NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing and others on Tyneside who show solidarity with the victims of the dictatorship which owns Newcastle United are often accused of being Sunderland fans, as if only Sunderland care about human rights in the North East!
However, Newcastle fans who have made their peace with the fact that the owners use the club to deflect attention away from their many crimes and human rights abuses resort to whataboutery when the prickly issue of the Saudi ownership is mentioned by rivals.
“No blood on our hands”
Friendly derby banter is normal but a Sunderland banner which states: ‘NO BLOOD ON OUR HANDS’ raises serious issues.
Some Newcastle fans counter that Sunderland fans have no right to raise the question of the human rights record of the 80% NUFC owners because there is a BAE factory on Wearside which manufactures the missiles that rain down on Yemen on the orders of the Saudi dictatorship. Missiles which cause death and destruction and an enormous man-made humanitarian crisis including famine.
Do we really want to be dragged down into this cynical, lowest common denominator banter? The fact is, BAE Systems don’t own Sunderland Football Club. The Saudi royal dictatorship however, does own Newcastle United.
Fellow Newcastle fans would be better off admitting that the club is indeed owned by one of the bloodiest dictatorships on the planet rather than deflecting.
The Tyne-Wear FA Cup Derby – Newcastle and Sunderland
Former Sunderland and Inter Milan player Yann M’Vila has described this fixture as bigger than the Milan derby.
The Tyne-Wear FA Cup Derby should be a magnificent sporting event but it carries a lot of baggage, both historically and present day.
The inter-city rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle dates back to the English Civil War when protestations over advantages that merchants in Royalist Newcastle had over their Wearside counterparts led to Sunderland becoming a Parliamentarian stronghold.
A powerful family of Sunderland merchants called the Lilburnes were influential.
‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne, a close associate of Oliver Cromwell, was the founder of the radical Levellers movement who claimed everyone was born with “freeborn rights”. He would go on to write a suggested constitution for England in 1649.
Lilburne later fell out with the despotic Cromwell and he bravely stood his ground when he was unjustly charged with treason. Lilburne’s willingness in the cause of justice to face violence and death at the hands of a cruel and overwhelmingly powerful state was an inspiration and is echoed today in the brave stance of Saudi human rights activists facing execution and decades in prison.
In the Civil War, despite heavy resistance, the defences of Newcastle were eventually crushed by the constant bombardment of cannons from the Gateshead side of the river.
Sunderland and Newcastle were again on opposite sides during the Jacobite risings, with Newcastle in support of the Hanoverians with the German King George, and Sunderland siding with the Scottish Stuarts.
Newcastle and Sunderland both became mighty industrial centres in the nineteenth century with shipbuilding, mining and engineering creating a numerous and strong working class with their unions and culture of solidarity.
By the end of the 19th century the political rivalry between the two cities was channelled along football lines. Richard Storehouse speculated that the term ‘Geordie’ originated from the Tyneside coal miners’ preference for George Stephenson’s ‘Geordie’ safety lamp over the more widely used Humphry Davy lamp. He added that; “it has been accepted almost universally that Mackem is derived from the phrase Mak(e)’em and Tak(e)’em, coined by Tyneside shipbuilders to insult their counterparts on the River Wear, who would build the ships and have them taken away by the richer classes.”
Despite the efforts of the ‘richer classes’ to divide and rule, the people of the North East remained mostly united apart from when it came to football. The Great Miners’ strike of 1984/85 and the Poll Tax struggle are but two examples. The magnificent Big Meeting in Durham is a living example of that unity outside of football.
Football fans united
That’s not to say that Newcastle and Sunderland fans have not cooperated in common cause. Both sets of fans combined to oppose the ban on visiting supporters from what was the last derby at Roker Park in 1996, amongst other examples.
There are more examples of bitter football rivals coming together in support of a higher cause. When Margaret Thatcher was laying waste to Liverpool in the 1980s, Everton and Liverpool fans turned up at Wembley with red and blue stickers declaring; ‘Merseyside United against the Tories,’ and of course there was unity across the city and both sets of fans in support of justice for the Hillsborough 97.
Today, the travel bubble imposed by the authorities for the derby is a further erosion of the rights and freedoms of football fans and is another opportunity for both sets of fans to unite.
Newcastle fans support human rights
NUFCFAS recognises that the vast majority of Newcastle fans oppose the human rights abuses committed by the owners of our club.
However, we also understand why fans of other clubs raise the issue. Tyneside MPs, Newcastle councillors, official NUFC fan groups and supporters around the fanzines have all been asked to show basic solidarity with the victims of the owners. Not much has been forthcoming. Generic ‘support for human rights’ is not enough.
As Ahmad al-Rabea, the brother of Hassan, who was deported from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, said in a letter to Eddie Howe and the Newcastle players:
“You may think that in your position you cannot change the behaviour of governments. I don’t believe this is true.The truth is that your club is owned by a repressive regime and you and your players are employed by them. If you say nothing about the gross human rights abuses and violations we are suffering then this is an acceptance of these violations. If you speak out against them you can save lives.
“You can make a difference, Mr Howe. Newcastle United’s players and fans can, too. We know you don’t support the atrocities carried out by the owners of the club. But if you spoke up for the young people on death row, and for my brother, you would be heard by the Saudi regime. It may be comforting to tell yourself there is nothing you can do, but it is not true.
“If not now, then when?”
If Sunderland fans take the opportunity of the cup derby on Saturday to say there is ‘NO BLOOD ON OUR HANDS’ they should go further and say the names of Saudi prisoners, many of whom are on death row. Their families are appealing for support, let’s give it to them. Newcastle fans too should also take the opportunity when the country is watching to make clear that we support the team and not the regime.
Enjoy the match but let’s rise above petty and negative rivalry and show some united North East solidarity in support of the many victims of the 80% owners of Newcastle United.
Obviously, it’s not only Sunderland fans who care about human rights but we need, as NUFC fans, to say that loud and clear.
Solidarity with Saudi victims from both sets of fans would be a massive statement.
John Hird – NUFC FANS AGAINST SPORTSWASHING