Sunderland branch of the PLO | When is someone a terrorist?

Next week the Supreme Court will hear the case of Shamima Begum.   Begum was born in the UK but stripped of her citizenship when she travelled to Syria to marry a jihadi; a so called Bride of Isis.

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While it is hard to have sympathy for what she did stripping a British born person of their citizenship by a politician without judicial oversight is deeply wrong.   Even with judicial oversight I am not convinced it should ever be lawful.

In advance of this case I wanted to tell a lost story from the 1980s about Sunderland AFC, specifically the Fulwell Boot Boys and the PLO.   As this is a story about the 1970s and 1980s it has a haze of nostalgia over it, and I have tried to be as accurate as possible through the mists of time and memory.

I was a Sunderland fan in the 70s and 80s, and it is fair to say that there was as much racism at Sunderland as at any club, at least until the signings of Gary Bennett and Howard Gayle.  Like many Sunderland fans watching the racism they experienced changed my views forever. 

This is Gary Bennett standing up to racism in his own particular way:

David Speedie one of the nastiest people in 80s football

Sunderland didn’t have as big a problem with the National Front as some clubs (Newcastle, Leeds, Millwall), and when the NF did show up at matches they were given a rough reception.  I can vividly recall a massive NF skin being given a rough time over his racist language in the Fulwell end by a shipyard worker who was half his size but twice as tough.  I don’t know whether Sunderland were anti-NF out of principle or because of their ongoing and often violent rivalry with Newcastle.


At some point among the usual chants the Fulwell end adopted a pro-PLO chant.   P/P/PLO.   I can’t remember when I first heard it, but it was definitely around in the very early 80s, and my guess is that it started in the late 70s.   The identification with the PLO wasn’t unique to Sunderland, Celtic fans also claimed solidarity with Palestinians.   

Stories went round that Sunderland fans had travelled to the Middle East and fought with the PLO.  The numbers of Sunderland fans who actually made the journey is hard to pin down, and my guess is that a couple of daft lads went out, got sunburn and a bad tattoo and came home with a polaroid of themselves with a Kalashnikov.

This changed in 1982 when Ian Davison, from South Shields travelled to Palestine.  Davison was an apprentice joiner and regular at Roker Park, travelling on the Marsden supporters club bus.  

Davison tore up his British passport and became a full time member of Force 17 – the elite PLO unit which included fighters from around the world.  By 1983 he was fighting alongside Fatah forces in Lebanon, and serving in Yasser Arafat’s personal bodyguard.

In 1985 Davison led a Force 17 unit in an operation in Larnaca, Cyprus which left 3 Mossad agents dead.   Davison was captured, and sentenced to life imprisonment. 

This set of a terrible chain of retaliation.  In response to the sentence terrorists staged a mortar attack on an RAF base in Cyprus.  Israel the launched a long range missile attack on Force 17 headquarters 1st October 1985 Force 17 that nearly killed Yasser Arafat and leaving 40 dead.

The PLO hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro October 7th 1985, killing one of the hostages; Leon Klinghoffer a disabled Jewish American.

On September 5th 1986 Pam-Am flight 73 from Bombay to New York was hijacked during a refueling stop at Karachi airport.   Terrorists demanded the release of Ian Davidson and demanded that the plane was flown to Cyprus.   When their demands were refused they turned their guns on the passengers killing 43 before being shot by Pakistani security forces.   11 of the 43 were British.

In 1993 Davison was released by the Cyprus authorities and returned home.   No-one cancelled his citizenship.  His family regarded him as a hero and a returning solider, rather than a terrorist.   There were rumours that he had fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army in the late 90s, but I have found no reliable evidence of that.  The KLA were a horrific organisation who traded in human organs, and whose leader is belatedly to stand trial for war crimes.  

Davison is rumoured to still be on a Mossad kill list, although he is a regular at the Stadium of Light, and drinks in the Grey Horse at Whitburn. so either Mossad aren’t looking that hard for him, or the Grey Horse is too rough even for them.

I don’t know why we treated Davison so differently to Shamima Begum, who was ghastly and stupid but never killed anyone. 

No-one ever discussed cancelling Davison’s citizenship even though his crimes were infinitely worse – he was an active terrorist, who killed and was part of a series of events which left 100s dead.   No Tory MP demanded he be sent to a foreign country or banned from the UK.  

I think part of it is race – we find it easier to imagine a blond haired white man as a freedom fighter rather than a terrorist. 


Part of it is the cause – many middle class Brits have sympathies with the fight against Israel no matter how bloody or misguided.  Some even lay wreaths.

But I think it is mostly about changing times, and different politics. A nastier, show-boating style of politics that puts headlines above the rule of law, and which is strongly authoritarian.  

I can’t stand Shamima Begum, but I hope she wins her case.   

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