The participating parliamentarians of the 50th plenary session of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly coalesced in Croke Park, Dublin on the afternoon of Monday the 23rd of February for a panel discussion, co-chaired by Frank Feighan TD of Fine Gael, on sport and its contribution to community and cultural development in Ireland. Indeed, football featured prominently, so as we welcome the return of the competitive international game for the first time in over four months this weekend with the visit of Poland to Dublin for a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier, it is worth examining the nature of what was discussed in relation to our national side at the meeting last month.
The contributing panellists to the discussion were brought together from the fields of football, GAA and rugby; they were Ryan Feeney (Head of Community and Public Affairs for the Ulster GAA), Claire Adams (Outreach Project Officer for the Irish Football Association), Miriam Malone (Business Partnerships Manager for the Football Association of Ireland), Trevor Ringland (Chairman of the NI Board of the Peace Players International and former Ireland rugby player) and Hugo MacNeill (Chairman of the British-Irish Association and former Ireland rugby player).
Feighan had written an article on The42.ie to publicise the discussion in advance and, in his article, had outlined that “the Irish player eligibility issue” would be afforded special attention during the plenary session. Despite the fact that the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled conclusively on this matter four years ago in the case of CAS 2010/A/2071, IFA v/ FAI, Kearns & FIFA, the discussion in itself was not completely unwelcome. Dialogue aids understanding, which might well be a positive thing considering this is an issue that has proven quite contentious within the north of Ireland over the past number of years. It was therefore worthwhile to hear the opinions on this particular matter of the array of panellists present.
And so it was a question from Northern Ireland-supporting Sammy Douglas MLA of the DUP that initiated the conversation. Quoting the Bible, Douglas told us, “it’s the little foxes that spoil the vines”, before talking briefly of criticism within Scotland of the eligibility to play for the FAI (or the “FIA”, as Douglas repeatedly referred to the association) of Scotland-born players James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady (he first referred to McGeady as “Aideen McGinley” before attempting to correct himself with his second and final attempt, “Aiden McGready”). After outlining that he felt this was an issue to do with the “poaching of some of [the IFA’s] best players”, he asked the assembly:
“Would you encourage the FIA [sic] in entering into a formal agreement on the issue, and that formal agreement to be lodged with UEFA or FIFA in the interests of fostering good community relations?”
Although his field is Gaelic games, Ryan Feeney wisely suggested to Douglas that it was important “to broaden the debate out a bit” beyond the “poaching” narrative assigned to it and the alleged conduct of the FAI. Indeed, it is crucial that anyone attempting to understand the complexities and sensitivities involved in this issue looks beyond such an over-simplistic and misleading framework, for it seeks to blame the FAI, as if to suggest they are undertaking something illegitimate, dishonourable or underhand, and to deny the players concerned of their agency in failing to entertain the notion that players – sentient beings – might choose themselves for whom they would prefer to play. Not that all the “best players” who have played for Northern Ireland are opting to play for the Republic of Ireland anyway; a total of 7 players have formally requested and effected a switch of association from IFA to FAI since the permission to switch once was introduced at the outset of 2004. It was unfortunate, then, that Trevor Ringland repeated another common misconception during his contribution, specifically in relation to whether or not the rules in place to govern player eligibility are being applied correctly. He stated:
“On the eligibility and the particular problem around young players from Northern Ireland opting to play for the Republic of Ireland; it’s not like other sports. It is young players from Northern Ireland who, under the rules, as properly applied, in my mind, are eligible to play for Northern Ireland deciding to play for the Republic of Ireland, which is a totally different football team. And it’s a disappointment to me that they are choosing not to represent me and, in a lot of the work I’ve been doing in promoting a shared Northern Ireland and building relationships, in many ways, they’re saying, ‘We don’t want a relationship with you’, and going off to play for somebody else. It’s happened; it’s done damage to the relationships and it’s made things a wee bit more difficult.”
The rules in place to govern football eligibility are being applied correctly by FIFA, as the Court of Arbitration for Sport confirmed to all parties concerned four years ago. This matter is only a “problem” if one wishes to make it a problem. Ringland might see the Republic of Ireland as a “totally different football team”, but, whether he agrees with it or not, national identity transcends political boundaries and the Republic of Ireland football team is the football team of natural and cultural affiliation for a very significant portion of the population with whom he happens to share the territory of Northern Ireland. Was he insinuating that this particular sporting and cultural preference of theirs is inherently a problem?
Ringland also asserted that “to play for Northern Ireland is also to play for an Irish team, because Northern Ireland is an Irish team just as it’s a British team.” Northern Ireland may well be an Irish team, but that Irish identity, we are reminded, is a regional or sub-national British one that is distinct from the independent Irish national identity with which nationalists affiliate and that is channeled through the de facto all-island Republic of Ireland team. Are, say, Irish tricolours a common feature in Belfast’s Windsor Park? Would they be a welcome feature? Nobody is saying they ought to be, as how Northern Ireland fans wish to conduct and express themselves is their own business, but to suggest that the national identity of nationalists can receive genuine or full representation through (or that nationalists should identify with or feel represented by) a team that represents no more than a quarter of their proud island nation and that is intrinsically British by both identification and official designation is certainly specious. The unreasonable expectation upon nationalists to unconditionally identify with the Northern Ireland football team is akin to one wanting to have their cake and eat it too.
I applaud Ringland, a declared unionist, for his positive intentions and reconciliation work, but he fundamentally misunderstands the broad nationalist community if he thinks that those who support or declare for the FAI are doing so to purposefully and specifically reject a relationship with himself, his ideas and others like him. The reality of the situation, rather, is that Irish nationalists incline or orientate towards a different cultural beacon to the one to which Ringland subscribes and they channel their identity through that in the same way that Ringland channels his through the idea of a British Northern Ireland. The fortunes of the Northern Ireland football team are about as culturally relevant to many Irish nationalists as the fortunes of, say, the English, Scottish or Welsh football teams. For most nationalists, identification and affiliation is not about being spitefully anti-Northern Irish or anti-British, nor is it about being culturally against for what Ringland stands. Ringland must realise that not everything nationalists in the north do and think is relative to or in reaction to unionism. The reality is more straightforward than that. Nationalists’ lack of identification with Northern Ireland is not necessarily even a conscious decision on their parts; the alien idea of supporting Northern Ireland might simply never have crossed their minds. For most nationalists, their affiliation “elsewhere” is about celebrating themselves, their own identity and being pro-Irish, for want of a better description; it is about defining and expressing themselves on their own independent terms, which can be purely benign, non-antagonistic and celebratory. Most nationalists can get along just fine with those from different walks of life whilst also celebrating their own identity. The two need not be mutually exclusive.
I fear Ringland lacks a degree of self-awareness too in his perception of nationalist attitudes. Many nationalists would, no doubt, be more than delighted to have this shared relationship with Ringland in a united Ireland or single, all-island team situation, but, for further reasons outlined below, I get the distinct impression that this is not something with which Ringland would be too enamoured. That is, of course, completely fine and reasonable – those are his personal politics – but it does expose his purported prioritisation of a shared relationship over all else to be ultimately hollow. Would Ringland think it fair if a nationalist were to attempt to frame his identification as British and his preference for the continuation of partition in Ireland as a problem tantamount to an outright rejection of a relationship with nationalists or southerners? He would likely accuse his critic of wild misrepresentation. It is evident he is asking for this shared relationship on his terms and is effectively crying “foul” when – no surprise – his terms are not met. Who gave his terms primacy? I am not at all saying that Ringland has been intentionally trying to stir things up – I believe his naïveté is sincere – but his expectation is unreasonable, for it is an expectation he would never demand of himself in reverse, and I do think it would be helpful if he showed a greater sensitivity and consideration of the nationalist community in the north when discussing this matter in future if his aspiration truly is greater understanding, reconciliation and the building of better relationships.
Indeed, the age-old question of a single, all-island football team was discussed after Seán Rogers MLA of the SDLP asked, “Is it time for an all-Ireland team?” in light of the fact that “GAA and rugby really don’t recognise a border”. It is worth noting Hugo MacNeill’s considered response. He stated of opinions espousing a single, all-island team:
“I wonder does that demonstrate the kind of understanding of the different traditions? Because my understanding and my sense is that there’s no wish or desire for that among the, sort of, unionist population of Northern Ireland that that would happen. I think the history of rugby is very different. I think the history of boxing is very different. I think we need to be very careful because comments that can seem superficially attractive to some people are deeply provocative to a lot of other people, and I say that with respect.”
Obviously, MacNeill was referring specifically to any proposal that might compel an unwilling IFA to conjoin with the FAI and the possible lack of understanding of the unionist identity and the community’s traditions amongst non-unionists that would be involved in the viewing of such a proposal as attractive (possibly more so out of cultural ignorance in most cases than any genuine or particular intent for a sort of cultural subjugation), but the same principle applies to the eligibility matter.
It might sound superficially attractive to the likes of Trevor Ringland, Sammy Douglas or Frank Feighan (who admitted to his lack of awareness of the social situation and division in the north whilst growing up 40 miles from the border in County Roscommon and supporting Northern Ireland play in the 1982 World Cup on television), to limit those born in the north to play for the IFA team only in the compelling interests of bi-communal togetherness, but it is an opinion that is profoundly provocative to a whole community of Irish nationals in the north who do not necessarily have any animosity towards the IFA; they simply want to support and affiliate with their own national football team, and especially without being accused of bigotry or treachery. They do not require any excuse for this.
Ringland seemed imperceptive to the obvious double standard or contradiction evident in his general stance where, on the one hand, he was seemingly rejecting an important outlet for the expression of nationalists’ cultural identity by advocating the limiting of player choice where Irish nationals born in the north were concerned, but, on the other hand, later opposed the notion of a single all-island team as he felt it would amount to a trampling upon or rejection of the Northern Irish or unionist identity. He was expecting northern-born nationalists to embrace the unionist ideal and frowned upon them for looking elsewhere, but he hypocritically imposed no such moral or judgmental demand upon himself to conform to the nationalist ideal in reverse. He responded to Rodgers as follows:
“Northern Ireland exists and I think sometimes we need to watch that we don’t constantly want Northern Ireland to be somewhere else. It’s been created because of our history and it’s probably going to exist for the foreseeable future into generations, and maybe it is the solution to the Irish question that it continues to exist. We have our own identity, many of us. We’re very proud of the place. It’s a beautiful place and the people are fantastic when you press the right buttons, and it’s trying to get a politics that presses the right buttons.”
That is all well and good for Ringland. His rejection of the notion of a single, all-island team is entirely reasonable and I would object to attempts to trample upon or strip him of his identity by imposing a single, all-island team upon him and his community, especially without some democratic and consensus-driven agreement or solution (depending on one’s perspective) to the enduring constitutional question. The fact that the Republic of Ireland team is a de facto all-island team anyway due to the legitimate island-wide application of Irish nationality law is worth remembering when we speak of such proposals. Northern Ireland supporters perceive such talk to amount to little more than excessive and tiresome baiting. However, on Ringland’s point, he must remember in turn that the Irish nationalist minority also exist and that community also have their own proud and distinct identity. Sport has a big role to play in that too, so is a situation where proper recognition is afforded to only one identity and not to the other really a fair and tolerable one? Nationalists simply seek to support a team that represents their identity just as Ringland seeks to support a team that represents his. If we tolerated others as we ourselves wish to be tolerated, I think that would be a good start at getting towards this place for which Ringland purports to be striving.
For this reason, the contribution of the IFA’s Claire Adams was very much welcome. She said:
“We want to develop our young players. We have a responsibility to show them what Northern Irish football wants to do and where we want to go. Michael O’Neill, since he’s come into the [managerial] post, has made great efforts in moving right across the country to talk to young people, to explain what Northern Ireland want to do with their football – what the IFA want to do – but I think we really need to show them what we can offer. A lot of it does come down to personal choice, but, what I would say is, the Irish FA’s focus right now is to develop the best players and the best people that we can and, hopefully, that will be enough for them to decide to stay on with us. But, as I say, we do support any young person if they’re involved in sport. If they’re involved in football, we are happy about that.”
By acknowledging that the eligibility matter centres around player choice, the IFA’s official and public position is one of acceptance of the rules and of the right of Irish nationals to channel their interests elsewhere if they so wish. That the IFA are now taking the progressive, proactive and respectful approach to this matter by acknowledging that it is their responsibility to convince those who have a choice to choose the IFA, rather the shifting of blame elsewhere, is to be welcomed. Whilst their former approach of rejecting and attempting to deny choice came across as vindictive and did nothing but provoke antipathy amongst the nationalist community, the new tack appears to be reaping rewards for them. Indeed, Adams outlined that “the number of young Catholics playing in [the IFA’s] elite squads majorly outnumbers those in previous years”. If a choice is made with which everyone concerned is happy, that is surely the most important thing.
Miriam Malone of the FAI re-iterated the importance of player choice in this matter as part of her contribution, whilst also appreciating that there can be an impact in terms of the IFA possibly losing the option of selecting once-eligible quality players born in the north because they have declared elsewhere. She said:
“We did talk a lot earlier about respecting an individual’s choice and that’s, I suppose, for me where it boils down to it; respecting the individual’s choice to play for where they choose to do so. And that’s not taking back from the impact – I know we spoke about it briefly last time as well – the impact that that might have. I’m not trying to take from that impact that that might have. I do understand that would have an impact on you, particularly if you perceive some of your top players are moving, but, for me, it boils down to respecting the individual’s choice, at the end of the day, where they choose to play.”
So, really, in light of the latter opinions indicating that both the IFA and FAI have moved on from a period of dispute, it must be asked, for whom of note or significance in the field is the eligibility matter actually still an issue? In spite of having just listened to the positive contribution of Adams, Feighan peculiarly summarised this aspect of the session in the following terms:
“But if we can work together on this impasse between the IFA and the FAI, I think this body should call for more dialogue to try to forge common ground in the interests of the wider footballing community and a workable, long-term protocol that would get a fair solution on this issue, because it’s an issue, I think, that with more dialogue we can solve it.”
It would appear then that the reality of Irish nationals from the north opting to play for the Republic of Ireland remains an issue mainly for politicians who see potential mileage either out of stoking the flames of division or by proposing do-gooder solutions that are both unnecessary and potentially damaging to cross-communal understanding. I suspect Feighan is guilty of the latter.
To work towards denying certain Irish nationals against their wishes the right to be chosen by their country would be to work towards treating such players uniquely unfairly and distinctly from all other international footballers around the world who have the right to declare for their countries and even from fellow Irish nationals by birth born south of the border or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, besides the north. In other words and no matter how well-intentioned Feighan claims his motives might be, it would be to arbitrarily discriminate against a particular set of players of Irish nationality by birth simply on the basis of the location of their birth. The formal agreement proposed by Douglas between the FAI and IFA would be both unlikely and unrealistic for the same reason. Indeed, at paragraph 90 of the Kearns case, the Court of Arbitration for Sport specifically stated that had some form of cross-associational agreement been in place then to prohibit Kearns switching from the IFA to the FAI, he would still have been “entitled to exercise his rights” regardless as he would “not [have been] a party to any such agreement”.
Not that peace and reconciliation in the north is FIFA’s raison d’être (nor is it the FAI’s), but that the global governing body happens to continually protect such identification as an incidental derivative of the existing regulatory framework is a positive thing that aids cultural expression and enhances the nationalist community’s sense of communal recognition. That is a good thing for peace and reconciliation across the whole island of Ireland and is the type of thing encouraged by the Good Friday Agreement. Now, if politicians could also recognise this and follow the lead of their footballing counterparts at the IFA in accepting the reality and the choice available to players as part of that reality, that would be progress…
The above article also featured on Back Page Football. For my dissection of the various points on this matter made by Frank Feighan in his article on The41.ie, see part one, 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.