Tyne & Wear

Miners' Di Canio protest 'will only end with Sunderland campaign support'

Paolo Di Canio with a Sunderland scarf after being named the club's manager
Image caption Paolo Di Canio was named Sunderland manager last Sunday after Martin O'Neill was sacked

A miners' welfare group protesting over Paolo Di Canio's appointment as Sunderland manager has said it will end its opposition only if the club agrees to join it in an anti-fascist campaign.

The Durham Miners' Association sent a letter on Friday evening to the club urging it to back its campaign.

It also wants MPs, anti-discrimination bodies and trade unions involved.

But even if the club agrees to the request the DMA has insisted Di Canio should play no part in the initiative.

The Premier League club has declined to comment.

Italian Di Canio was named as its manager last Sunday, replacing the sacked Martin O'Neill.

'Dangerous times'

Labour politician David Miliband then resigned from the club's board over Di Canio's "past political statements". The manager had been quoted in 2005 describing himself as "a fascist, not a racist".

The DMA threatened to remove one of its mining banners from Sunderland's Stadium of Light, which is built on the former site of the Wearmouth Colliery, as a symbol of its anger over the appointment.

But Di Canio issued a statement on Wednesday in which the former Swindon manager said: "I am not political, I do not affiliate myself to any organisation. I am not a racist.

"I do not support the ideology of fascism. I respect everyone. I am a football man. This and my family are my focus."

Initial comments from DMA representatives following Di Canio's statement strongly hinted the matter would be drawn to a close and they had been expected to drop their request for him to be removed from his position.

Image caption Paolo Di Canio was criticised for giving a straight arm salute while playing in Italy for Lazio in 2005

But a meeting of the DMA's executive officers on Friday voted in favour of writing to the club to ask it to back its campaign in return for ending its opposition.

Dave Hopper, the general secretary of the DMA, told the BBC: "We're looking to the club to be a catalyst in the fight against fascism.

"We live in dangerous times and there is a problem with the far-right in the area.

"We're seeking support from the club. If they assist us with the campaign then the banner will stay in the stadium."

The DMA met with Rob Mason, a Sunderland executive, on Thursday and held what were described as "constructive talks".

'Rallying point'

But the association has now decided it wants the club to make a show of its commitment against fascism and racism.

"This should have been done a number of years ago and now we face the prospect of Sunderland becoming a rallying point for extremists," said Mr Hopper.

Asked if Di Canio would be encouraged to play a part in the campaign if the club agreed to participate, he said: "We don't want Di Canio involved.

"This is about leafleting, holding meetings and raising the profile of the anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigning we want to do in the area. We want the support of the club in this endeavour."

Image caption Miners' groups hold a major gala in Durham each summer

In 2005, Di Canio was pictured making a raised-arm salute to a group of supporters of Italian club Lazio, where he was playing at the time. And in his autobiography he described former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as "a very principled, ethical individual" who despite committing "vile acts" was "deeply misunderstood".

Mr Miliband, a local MP and a former foreign secretary, joined the Sunderland board in February 2011 after retiring from front bench politics in the aftermath of losing the Labour leadership race to his brother Ed.

He said last week he was going to quit as Labour MP for South Shields to take up a role with the International Rescue Committee in New York and then days later sparked a wave of protest against Di Canio when he resigned from the board after the former Lazio, West Ham and Sheffield Wednesday player was confirmed as O'Neil's replacement.

'An honest man'

Di Canio initially refused to discuss his political beliefs but finally released a statement after sustained pressure from the DMA, war veterans groups and the Dean of Durham.

In 2011, when Di Canio was appointed as Swindon Town's manager, the GMB union withdrew its sponsorship of the club, citing his political views.

Sunderland play away to Chelsea in the Premier League on Sunday and had hoped to draw a line under the affair given that they are just one point above the relegation zone with only seven Premier League games remaining.

Earlier this week the club's chief executive Margaret Byrne said: "It's been disappointing to read some of the reaction.

"Anyone who has met Paolo and spoken with him personally, as we did in depth before making this appointment, will know that he is an honest man, a man of principle and a driven, determined and passionate individual.

"It is disappointing that some people are trying to turn the appointment of a head coach into a political circus."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites