Having made a smooth return to club football for Everton after a lengthy lay-off due to a knee injury, Derry-born Darron Gibson was a welcome inclusion in Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland squad for the upcoming Euro 2016 qualifier against Poland. Unfortunately, a separate but persistent groin injury has since caused him to withdraw and return to his club with the need for surgery a real long-term possibility. Other well-established northerners James McClean of Wigan Athletic and Marc Wilson of Stoke City do remain in the squad for Sunday evening’s game, however, and, whilst the presence of these players is almost universally saluted by Irish supporters both north and south of the border, it is disheartening that we have still had recently, from certain quarters on the island, aspersions cast as to the uprightness of the selection of such Irish nationals generally and challenges proposed to the means of their eligibility.
Just a month ago, on Monday the 23rd of February, Frank Feighan TD of Fine Gael co-chaired the 50th plenary session of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Dublin. In preparation for a panel discussion on sport and its contribution to community and cultural development as part of the plenary session, he penned a publicity piece for The42.ie in which he declared that “[w]hile the Good Friday Agreement entitles those born in Northern Ireland to dual citizenship, the trend in [football] players from north of the border declaring for the Republic deserves careful consideration”. It was clear, then, that this would be a matter firmly on the agenda.
It has been four years, however, since the Court of Arbitration for Sport did carefully consider the “Irish player eligibility issue” and gave its judgment in the case of CAS 2010/A/2071, IFA v/ FAI, Kearns & FIFA confirming the right of Irish nationals by birth north of the border to declare for the Republic of Ireland in light of what was and remains FIFA’s correct application of their governing rules. It was therefore surprising to see Feighan propose that governmental time and resources now be spent on further consideration, whatever that should practically entail exactly.
First of all, it is important to realise that the oft-mentioned quasi-constitutional Good Friday Agreement has nothing to do with the Irish player eligibility matter in substance, nor insofar as footballing eligibility is governed by articles 5 to 8 of FIFA’s Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes. Article 5.1 of those regulations, which covers Irish nationals by birth, states:
“Any person holding a permanent nationality that is not dependent on residence in a certain country is eligible to play for the representative teams of the Association of that country.”
In principle, Irish nationals by virtue of their birth in the north have been eligible to play for the Football Association of Ireland (the governing body of the Republic of Ireland football team) for so long as the entitlement to Irish nationality has been island-wide, or since 1956, more precisely, with the passing of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956 and the extension of the application of Irish nationality law north of the border. As far back as 1946, the rule governing international footballing eligibility, article 21.2 of the Regulations of the FIFA, stated:
“The players (NB. of International Matches) must be selected by the National Associations concerned and be subjects of the country they represent”.
At the 33rd FIFA Congress in Santiago, Chile, in 1962, that was re-worded and what became article 18.1 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes was enacted. It then read:
“Any player who is a naturalised citizen of a country in virtue of that country’s laws shall be eligible to play for a national or representative team of that country.”
This wording of the primary eligibility rule remained in place until a 2004 change saw it become article 15.1 and the text amended to the following:
“Any person holding the nationality of a country is eligible to play for the representative teams of the Association of his country.”
That became the version of today in 2008, under which, of course, Irish nationals by virtue of their birth north of the border remain eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland. Belfast-born Ger Crossley and Derry-born Mark McKeever were just two of a number of players born in the north who played for Republic of Ireland teams by virtue of their birthright to Irish nationality in the years before the Good Friday Agreement bilaterally recognised the nationality law’s island-wide application.
As previously outlined, the main eligibility rule is now known as article 5.1, but from all of the above, we can deduce that Irish nationals by birth in the north have been eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland for a continuous period of time stretching back nearly sixty years. It should also be pointed out that for most of that time, until 2004, there was a regulatory restriction on a player switching to a second association once he was competitively capped by a first association. In other words, a player became cap-tied to an association for good upon his participation in a FIFA-recognised competitive fixture for that association at any age-level. This would have been the case for many nationalist-community players growing up in the north (if even they were then aware of their eligibility to play for the Republic of Ireland in the first place); they became tied to the IFA for good as soon as they featured in a competitive game at any level for the association.
Whilst it would be mistaken to pretend that understanding of this matter is universal, there is at least a greater awareness within Irish football of the rules and rights of players nowadays (including the right to switch association once introduced to the regulations by FIFA at the outset of 2004). As already stated, however, this was not always the case. In fact, Belfast-born Jimmy McGeough remains strongly convinced to this day that Harry Cavan, former president of the Irish Football Association (the governing body in the north), abused his position as vice-president of the FIFA Executive Committee at the time to wield undue influence and instruct northern-born players that they were ineligible for the FAI. McGeough himself was prevented from representing the Republic of Ireland in 1969, which would have been in complete contravention of the eligibility rule then in place that rendered a player eligible for a national team if he possessed the nationality of that team, as McGeough did.
To the present day, however, and to answer the question in the title of Feighan’s piece; the reason northern-born Irish nationals declare for the Republic of Ireland is because they identify with the independent Irish national identity that is officially channelled through independent Ireland and, in turn, the FAI. They are as much legal citizens of the Irish nation as Frank Feighan is. Depriving players of the choice to play for their country and trying to compel or force them to play for another association with whom they do not identify does nothing to aid relations or reconciliation. Recognition and respect for identity as well as tolerance of difference are what is necessary for genuine reconciliation, as is acknowledged and encouraged by the Good Friday Agreement that Feighan is so keen to cite.
Feighan talks about “exploratory talks” being needed, as if to suggest this issue is an elephant in the living room. He misinforms us that “[c]alls from Unionist voices for FIFA and the British and Irish Government to intervene on this issue have received little response”. The situation has already been examined in great detail by football’s governing body. FIFA specifically looked at the eligibility of Irish nationals born in the north as early as 1994 when, at a 17th of May meeting of the Players’ Status Committee in Zurich, the IFA raised the matter by stating that “almost any player can obtain a Republic of Ireland passport in order to secure eligibility to play for this country”. The Committee discussed the point “at length” and concluded that “FIFA cannot interfere with the decisions taken by any country in the question of granting passports”.
The IFA appeared to have come to terms with this reality by 1999, when then IFA president Jim Boyce stated after a January meeting with his FAI counterpart Bernard O’Byrne:
“The issue of Northern Ireland’s eligible players opting to play for the Republic was discussed at length with the FAI. It was also stressed that if a player made an approach himself, there was little the FAI could do unless FIFA was to change legislation. That, we accept. But at least we have agreed to notify one another should this happen.”
The atmosphere at the meeting was described by O’Byrne to have been “very positive” whilst Boyce declared himself as being “extremely happy” with the outcome of all items on the agenda.
The IFA later deviated from this position of acceptance and, after higher-profile players like Darron Gibson and Marc Wilson chose to play for FAI under-age teams, formally complained about their selection to FIFA on the 19th of January, 2007. The issue was investigated as part of FIFA’s agenda over the course of nearly a full year until the IFA were informed on the 28th of December, 2007 that the FIFA Executive Committee had “thoroughly considered” the regulations in place to be “sufficient to properly cover” the situation. During that time, the IFA had already rejected a compromise suggestion from FIFA (that the FAI was happy to accept) in the hope of forging common ground and finding an amicable “solution”. The content and nature of these deliberations and correspondences is outlined at paragraph 64 of the 2010 Kearns case, which itself was yet another stage of consideration and the most thorough examination of this issue to date.
Feighan advises us that “the FAI and football community south of the border must be sensitive to the concerns of their counterparts in Belfast”, but this is to completely misunderstand an issue that has been framed by the FAI’s detractors as one involving the “poaching” of northern-born players. Perhaps Feighan genuinely is a naïve do-gooder with noble intentions, but his encouragement demonstrates an exceptional lack of sensitivity to the nationalist community – his compatriots – north of the border. The reality is that the FAI legitimately facilitate Irish nationals who are willing and good enough to play for their country. Those players from the north who declare for the FAI make that decision to declare themselves; nobody compels any player to declare for the FAI against his wishes, so talk of poaching, as if to suggest the FAI are involved in the illegal theft of unwilling players, is somewhat disingenuous. The FAI are fully entitled to select such players, as Irish nationals, so it is similarly misleading to frame the IFA as victims of plundering.
Governmental intervention or an internal agreement between the FAI and the IFA with the aim of restricting the selection or switching of Irish nationals born in the north by or to the FAI would be in direct contravention of FIFA’s rules as it would amount to an infringement upon the right protected by those rules of Irish nationals born north of the border to declare for their country. Those rules, articles 5 to 8 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes, apply universally and uniformly to the FAI and every other association within the FIFA community. Feighan speaks of the supposed necessity for “long term and fair protocols”, but his offered “solution” would see a certain category of Irish national footballers being treated unfairly and distinctly from all other international footballers around the world, for no better reason than the location of their birth. Even if FIFA were to ever approve of an unlikely FAI-IFA agreement, the Court of Arbitration for Sport might well over-rule it and enforce a player’s legal and personality rights anyway by declaring such a regulated agreement unwarranted if ever a case was brought alleging infringement. FIFA would have to explain to the court why they imposed the restrictive measure on behalf of the associations and would further have to prove that the intent and interest of the measure was of superior value than the right of the player concerned to be available for selection by his country.
The prospect of an all-unionist or all-Protestant community Northern Ireland team simply has not transpired since the headline case of Darron Gibson nearly a decade ago, nor is there any indication that it will. For Feighan to suggest there is “a very real danger that both international football teams on the island might come to represent almost exclusively Nationalist and Unionist communities” is simply baseless scaremongering for which there is absolutely no evidence. In fact, the complete opposite appears to be true as, according to Claire Adams speaking on behalf of the IFA at the plenary session’s panel discussion, “the number of young Catholics playing in [the IFA’s] elite squads majorly outnumbers those in previous years”. Significant numbers of players from Catholic or nationalist backgrounds still play for the IFA and will do so in the future. Some more career-oriented players will be happy simply for the international recognition whilst pragmatic others may not see a benefit in declaring for the FAI, where competition for places might be greater. Others yet may be perfectly content to overlook the Northern Ireland team’s symbolism or may even affiliate with aspects of what the IFA represents. Indeed, that is their choice. Niall McGinn, who played Gaelic football in his youth, is just one example of many players who openly support the Republic of Ireland yet play for the IFA.
Feighan also made the claim that the present situation “places an obvious financial burden on a relatively small football association, such as the IFA, to invest hugely in youth development squads only for players to declare for another senior squad”. This is not as obvious as Feighan suggests. He also overstates the burden or perceived loss for the IFA, considering the total number of players to have formally requested and completed a switch from the IFA to the FAI since the right to switch association was introduced over eleven years ago is seven. Crucially, however, the IFA are largely public-money and tax-payer dependent. The IFA are funded by the nationalist Republic of Ireland-supporting tax-payer in the north too and by the families, relatives and communities of those northern-born players who have declared for the Republic of Ireland, so it is only equitable that all northern-based players, whether Northern Ireland-supporting or Republic of Ireland-supporting, benefit from a footballing education through the contributions made by their communities in tax and domestic rates. IFA grassroots coaches operate within all the local council areas of the north and are also funded largely by the rate-payers of the particular council area, rather than by the IFA. Most of their coaching occurs on pitches and facilities owned by schools and the councils; not on IFA property.
It is also worth noting that the IFA too have benefited from FIFA’s allowance for players to make a single switch of association (the rule under which northern-born players can switch from the IFA to the FAI). Alex Bruce, for example, played for the FAI (including at senior level twice) before formally switching to the IFA. He is not the only case.
If we are to believe the welcome contribution of Claire Adams at the panel discussion, along with the public utterances of her association in relation to the matter in latter times, the IFA have since come to terms with the reality of the situation once again and have re-acknowledged the right of Irish nationals to opt to play for their country. It is therefore puzzling as to why Feighan wishes to re-ignite the flames of this issue at the present moment in time. Sometimes, more so than anything else, it is the misleading comments of misguided politicians that deserve our careful consideration.
The above is an unabridged version of an article published on Goal.com. A related piece also featured on Slugger O’Toole. For my analysis of the panel discussion co-chaired by Frank Feighan, see part two, or, for a more detailed analysis of the eligibility matter that I wrote in 2011, see here. Other previous writings of mine on this matter can be read here on Back Page Football and on pages 14-15 of issue 28 of the You Boys in Green fanzine.