Tonight, Belfast City Council will vote to uphold a motion put forward by councillor Declan Boyle of the SDLP (and seconded by Niall Ó Donnghaile of Sinn Féin) to invite the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland football teams to a joint civic reception at Belfast City Hall in celebration of both teams’ qualification for Euro 2016 in France this summer.
This is the first time in history that the two international-level football teams from the island have successfully navigated their way to the same major finals.
Whilst the SDLP, Sinn Féin, Alliance Party, Green Party and People Before Profit are all supportive of hosting a reception for the purpose of extending northern congratulations to the two island teams simultaneously – a similar joint event in Dublin has already been given approval by the Dublin City Council – Northern Ireland-supporting unionists and loyalists such as Jim Rodgers of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party and Jamie Bryson have voiced opposition.
Jim Rodgers spoke to William Crawley on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme yesterday afternoon and made the claim that he did not object to the potential presence of the Republic of Ireland team per se; rather, he indicated that he would be prepared to support the extension of an invite to the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) on the condition that the other qualifying teams from these islands – namely England and Wales – were also sent invites.
In accordance with his insistence, he further outlined that he would be proposing an amendment to the motion for the inclusion of the English and Welsh teams – so, four teams in total – before the scheduled vote takes place tonight.
On the face of it, such a proposed amendment does not seem all that unreasonable. That would be assuming, as Rodgers claimed to Crawley, that a celebration of neighbourly success is genuinely the motive behind it; Northern Ireland, England and Wales (along with non-qualifying Scotland) are all often referred to as “the Home Nations”, after all, and, indeed, Rodgers was keen to emphasise this.
Nevertheless, one suspects that Rodgers’ amendment suggestion might really be a bogus charade or a cloak behind which the UUP councillor can disingenuously, insidiously or more subtly conceal his actual opposition to the potential presence in Belfast of the Republic of Ireland team.
By proposing a conditional amendment he must surely know will be highly unlikely to gain traction – for obvious reasons that I will outline below – Rodgers can conveniently portray himself as maintaining a moral high-ground – as being all-inclusive and open to compromise – whilst still ultimately rejecting the SDLP’s motion.
It provides him the leeway of being able to assert his prejudice without actually having to explicitly state it. He perhaps has a fear – a reasonable one, quite probably – that, by explicitly stating it, he would simply expose himself or come across as a blatant bigot.
One suspects that Rodgers concealed from Crawley and Talkback‘s listeners his true or full feelings on the matter on account of the fact he also saw fit to make passing or supplementary reference to his belief that the FAI have “stolen many of [Northern Ireland’s] good young players”.
To be clear, the comment ended up a passing reference more so due to Crawley having unfortunately – perhaps unwittingly – interrupted Rodgers. The former, seemingly keen to stick to a scripted list of points for discussion, directed the conversation elsewhere before the latter had actually been able to fully conclude his point. Nevertheless, Rodgers had had enough time to make it clear that it was a “big issue” for himself and other Northern Ireland supporters.
In raising such an accusation, however, he could only have been implying that this perception as to how the FAI have conducted their business would pose some sort of problem for many unionists and Northern Ireland supporters, including himself, in terms of the Republic of Ireland team’s potential presence in Belfast.
For why would he have vocalised such an accusation at all if he, otherwise, genuinely had no issue in principle with extending an invite to the FAI, so long as England and Wales were given invites too? What was its relevance to the discussion if the only stumbling block for Rodgers was truly the potential absence of England and Wales?
To be clear then, were the Republic of Ireland team actually welcome in Belfast, insofar as Rodgers was concerned, or did a misplaced sense of grievance inhibit him from extending such a welcome? As he couldn’t have it both ways, it appeared he was suffering from a case of double-think.
The mention of “stolen” players was, of course, an articulation of Rodgers’ misguided interpretation of what constitutes a rather undesirable reality for many disgruntled unionists and Northern Ireland supporters; that being the fact that FIFA’s eligibility rules protect the right of Irish nationals born in the north of Ireland to declare for the Republic of Ireland team.
By and large, the Republic of Ireland team is the national team that nationalists in the north support. It is the team with whom they identify culturally. Accordingly, numerous northern-born Irish national players have willingly declared for the Republic of Ireland over recent years and the FAI have been happy to facilitate them.
Rodgers’ accusatory tone and wording in respect of the FAI was either unfortunate or intentionally inflammatory as it connoted an attempt to try and lay claim to, or claim possession for the Irish Football Association (IFA) of, certain northern-born players in spite of their non-identification with Northern Ireland and preference for the Republic of Ireland. The IFA do not own any players in the first place, so the notion that players may be stolen from them by another association simply does not hold.
It also appeared Rodgers was either oblivious of or happy to overlook two further inconvenient truths. First, dual-eligible players such as Alex Bruce, Johnny Gorman, Patrick McEleney, Shane McEleney and Gerard Doherty have all been welcomed aboard by the IFA after having priorly represented the Republic of Ireland.
Sean Scannell is another dual-eligible player who was approached by Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill with an eye to Scannell making a potential switch whilst he was still a regular in the FAI’s under-age set-up, although the player declined to make a switch of association at the time of inquiry.
So, even if the FAI were guilty of “stealing” players, as far as Rodgers is concerned, the IFA have been happy to utilise the exact same rules the FAI do to their advantage. In spite of this, many Northern Ireland supporters will protest loudly when, and only when, they suspect the FAI to have approached players in the their set-up.
Indeed, Rodgers threw his accusation in one direction only, as if to portray one party – the FAI – as “thieves” and the other party – the IFA – as “victims”. Double standards were blatantly at play.
Secondly, it borders on the ridiculous that this requires pointing out, but northern-born Irish nationals are sentient beings with personal agency; any choice with regard to the international-level team they would prefer to represent is made by themselves, perhaps assisted by their families.
For what it is worth, the FAI also firmly deny ever making initial approaches to northern-born players and assert that they, instead, wait for players to come forward and declare their interest in representing the Republic of Ireland to the association first.
Presumably, this is so as not to aggravate a sensitive neighbour, although it is not as if it would be of much consequence either way, so long as no regulations were being breached – which they wouldn’t be – and any player concerned was making a free choice.
The FAI facilitate these players’ wishes if those at the association deem the players concerned talented enough. Such players are not forced against their will into declaring for or representing the FAI.
The declaration process is entirely voluntary. For most players involved, it is in fact a step towards the realisation of a boyhood dream; the dream of playing for their country.
To suggest players have been “stolen” from the IFA by the FAI is simply another disingenuous cloak unionists and Northern Ireland supporters have hid behind whilst attempting to deny nationalist players their distinct Irish national identity and associated nationality rights.
The accusation has been employed as a device to invalidate the choice open to players to play for the Republic of Ireland, as well as to restrict players’ enjoyment of this outlet for the expression of their national identity.
It has been to disingenuously imply that the players concerned could really only have ended up in the FAI’s set-up, rather than in the IFA’s, via some sort of coercion or skullduggery. For nothing at the IFA’s end could ever possibly be at fault or be worth reflecting upon, as far as this matter is concerned… Or so that strain of denial-thinking presupposes anyway.
Contrast the vitriolic bile and abuse reserved by some Northern Ireland supporters for the FAI, their supporters and northern-born nationalist players such as James McClean (even the so-called “moderate” Belfast Telegraph once described him as a “turncoat” in a headline), Darron Gibson and Shane Duffy with the muted response garnered by Dominic Ball‘s switch from Northern Ireland to England last year after Ball had represented the IFA at various youth levels on 24 occasions.
The reason you are unlikely to have ever heard of Ball is because the Tottenham Hotspur player’s switch generated neither a headline in the northern media nor a morsel of outrage amongst the Northern Ireland faithful.
Was Jim Rodgers remotely bothered to accuse the English FA of having “stolen” Ball from the IFA as he expressed his eagerness to invite England along to Belfast too? Of course not.
The general absence in Ball’s case of the sort of outrage that would invariably be reserved for northern-born players opting to play for the FAI wasn’t for a lack of talent on the part of the promising young player either.
It seems compliant deference to “the mainland” is not so much a problem for many unionists, but when a nationalist wishes to go his own way, he is either being “stolen from his rightful owners” or he is “stepping out of line”; he and the “beggars” who encouraged or “stole” him are indicted and chastised.
Such inconsistency in treatment and judgment of the two respective cases not only betrays a hypocritical double standard, it also exposes the nasty sectarian underbelly that routinely feeds those who gurn incessantly and exclusively over the long-resolved “Irish eligibility dispute”.
And why might I assert that such unsavoury sentiment informs the indignation? The term “beggars” is one that is commonly used and accepted by Northern Ireland supporters on their “moderate”, yet private, ‘Our Wee Country’ forum – a reasonable barometer of the thoughts, opinions and attitudes of their support-base when corresponding amongst themselves, one would imagine – to refer to persons connected with the Republic of Ireland team.
Other derogatory terms – with indefensibly racist and supremacist connotations – that have been used frequently to refer to those affiliated with the Republic of Ireland team, without provoking any denunciation whatsoever from moderators or other users of the forum, include “gypsies”, “tarmaccers”, “Mexicans” and “rats”. Charming parlance…
Perhaps those on the Belfast City Council who are supportive of the SDLP’s proposal should call Rodgers’ bluff and accept his amendment proposal. Is it remotely likely England or Wales would accept an invite to visit Belfast for such an event anyway? Probably not.
Not that it would really be all that objectionable to anyone if the English and Welsh teams did happen to accept such an invite anyway, but their presence would just seem rather absurd and pointless in the first place.
Why would England or Wales bother to fly across the Irish Sea for a reception in a city where they do not enjoy any degree of meaningful local support? For whose devotional or material benefit would they be travelling?
Considering finances, why would or should the Belfast City Council foot additional bills for two teams that have little-to-no indigenous, communal, cultural or national relevance in Belfast. The Republic of Ireland team, on the other hand, do have such relevance in the city, and that relevance is in abundance.
A joint invitation involving Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as opposed to one also involving England and Wales, would be entirely appropriate on account of the fact that a very significant portion (between a third and a half) of the native tax and rate-paying northern population – Irish nationals and not a foreign or immigrant population – actually identify with and support the Republic of Ireland as their primary or sole team. Indeed, there are plenty of football supporters in the north who even support both teams.
The Republic of Ireland team is the national team of the indigenous Irish nationalist community in the bi-communal north and they channel their national identity through it. In fact, the team can plausibly be considered a de facto all-island team on account of the legitimate application of Irish nationality law on an island-wide basis.
As a consequence of this island-wide application, persons born in the north (to an Irish or British citizen or a legal resident) are entitled to Irish citizenship and can declare for the Republic of Ireland football team on this basis, in accordance with FIFA’s eligibility regulations.
Furthermore, the manager of the team, Martin O’Neill, along with senior first-team or squad members like James McClean, Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson, Shane Duffy and Eunan O’Kane – some of whom I have already mentioned above – all hail from the north themselves.
Rodgers did acknowledge to Crawley that sport is “a great thing for unifying people”, but if he truly believed the sentiment of this mantra, then why not get behind the SDLP’s proposal irrespective of whether or not the England and Wales teams also happen to be included?
Later then yesterday evening, Jamie Bryson published the following on his blog to add another voice of stern disapproval to the joint reception idea:
Thanks to the SDLP political stunt in Belfast City Council, a divisive debate has now erupted around a proposal to invite the Republic of Ireland national football team to a joint civic reception with the national team of Northern Ireland.
This proposal once again demonstrates the flaws within the ambiguous Belfast Agreement.
To Nationalists the agreement reads that Irishness has parity with Britishness and those who wish to identify as Irish then take from this that the National flag of the Republic of Ireland, the National football team and other symbols or bodies have a parity with the sovereign flag of the United Kingdom or the National football team of Nothern Ireland, among other things.
This is simply not the case. The Belfast Agreement enshrines the right of Nationalists to identify with the symbols of Irishness and to hold a political aspiration for a United Ireland- nowhere does it read that this aspiration translates into altering the sovereign constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
Legal protection for ones identity and political aspirations does not translate into a legal right to have this aspiration realised. The only legal way to alter the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is via the principle of consent.
The Northern Ireland football team is the only National team within this jurisdiction. And whilst those who identify as Irish have a legally protected right to say they identify with the Republic of Ireland team and to aspire for an all Ireland, this does not change the fact that Northern Ireland is a sovereign part of the United Kingdom therefore the national team of this country has primacy.
To bring both teams together is another attempt to use sport to force forward the all-Ireland political agenda and create some illusion that both teams have equal standing in relation to the international constitutional position of this country. They do not.
The SDLP and Sinn Fein, supported by the Alliance party, are intent on continuing to use cheap political stunts as part of their ongoing attempt to fuse equality for identity and political aspirations to demanding parity in terms of sovereign symbols. It is all part of the wider cultural war, which was spawned from the ambiguity of the shameful Belfast Agreement.
Bryson appears to attribute little importance to it, but the concept of parity-of-esteem is explicitly enshrined in the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement.
The Agreement stated:
The participants endorse the commitment made by the British and Irish Governments that, in a new British-Irish Agreement replacing the Anglo-Irish Agreement, they will … affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.
It is also worth stating that regardless of whether or not the Agreement existed, nationalists would still enjoy a right “to identify with the symbols of [national, independent and all-island] Irishness and to hold a political aspiration for a United Ireland”.
Nationalists always have possessed and asserted such inalienable human rights, even if such assertions were not favoured by the majority in the north and they suffered discrimination as a result.
The Agreement might have expressly acknowledged these rights, but it did not create them, nor did nationalists ever need unionists or the British state to tell them it was OK all of a sudden for them to feel the way they did.
Thus, it follows that the purpose of the Agreement was to develop greater parity in terms of already-existing rights by ensuring they would be better protected. To suggest that the purpose of the Agreement was to create rights that already existed would be to fundamentally misunderstand its nature.
The purpose of the Agreement with regard to this area – identity and aspirations – was quite clearly to ensure greater equality for nationalists within the northern framework. It was to ensure that nationalists would not suffer future discrimination, like they had suffered in the past, on account of their cultural identification and political aspirations.
Parity-of-esteem and ensuring equal treatment, however, do not necessarily have to equate to or constitute an “altering [of] the sovereign constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom”.
Parity-of-esteem can be realised whilst Bryson’s personal constitutional preference prevails, for however long that may be the case or for however long a majority in the north of Ireland wish for that to be the case. They are two separate matters and there is no necessary incompatibility.
Bryson portrays the contemporary reality as being a case of nationalists misreading the Agreement – perhaps even maliciously – for their own benefit and at the expense of unionists and loyalists.
However, plenty of non-nationalists, including secular and progressive unionists, as well as the Alliance Party, too subscribe to the aforementioned interpretation as to the compatibility of the parity-of-esteem principle with Bryson’s constitutional preference.
It is difficult to interpret the Agreement in any other way given the principle of parity-of-esteem and the present constitutional status of the north are both accorded express mention.
Thus, whilst the concept of inviting the football team of the Republic of Ireland to Belfast for what will be no more than a cross-communal celebratory tea-party is consistent and in accordance with the parity-of-esteem principle of the Agreement, such an invite will have no bearing whatsoever upon the constitutional status of the north of Ireland, nor upon the status of the Northern Ireland team, which will remain the representative team of the northern territory and will continue to exist as Bryson’s team, be it “national” or however he wishes to view it.
On that point, is the Northern Ireland team actually representative of a Northern Irish nation? Of course, people are entitled to define and convey themselves as they see fit, but it is commonly understood that people from two nations – the Irish nation and British nation (of which Bryson professes to be part) – occupy, in the main, the northern statelet, whilst the albeit-fluid contemporary Northern Irish identity is more commonly viewed as a regional or territorial identity, rather than as a national one. Is there such thing as an Ulster-Scots nation? Is this the nation to which Bryson is referring?
Regardless, there is no need for Bryson to view a potential joint reception as the threat to (the primacy of) his British and Northern Irish identity that he clearly perceives it to be. Bryson’s identity and political aspirations enjoy default primacy for so long as the north remains under British authority.
If Bryson took more scrupulous and honest stock of the reality of his surrounding locality, he would detect that only the Union flag flies from Belfast City Hall on designated days, in accordance with British government guidelines regarding government buildings; there is no sign of any Irish tricolour.
He should also have another look at the surrounding street-names, the statues and the artwork; they are all very much British and royalist in nature. Nationalism certainly does not enjoy equity, never mind primacy, here.
Even if a tricolour did fly symbolically from Belfast City Hall, side-by-side with a Union flag, it would not change the constitutional status of the northern jurisdiction.
Of course, in reality, Bryson, a legal scholar, should already fully aware of this, but publicly admitting to such would not serve to assist or bolster the suspect cultural-war-victim narrative, or fetish even, upon which his sense of grievance and political validity is founded.
Even if there was simultaneous recognition given to Irish nationalism or republicanism in the other aforementioned forms locally, it would not alter the presence of his culture and his ability to celebrate it, nor need it necessarily interfere with the presence of his cultural symbols, nor indeed should it.
Both cultures can practically co-exist without one encroaching or trampling upon the other. It is crucial to keep reminding Bryson and others who may think similarly that they need not fear recognition and toleration of others as an existential threat.
And need Bryson further be reminded that, whatever about nationalist community wishes or future aspirations for Irish unity, the southern state does not presently possess any form of joint authority over the north? Nor will the south ever possess any form of authoritative influence without the consent of a democratic majority in the northern statelet.
Meanwhile, the international-level football team he supports, Northern Ireland, will not be rendered defunct, replaced or modified from its current state for so long as the territory it represents continues to exist. It will continue to exist and represent him, playing its home games at Windsor Park in Belfast (unless, of course, the IFA themselves decide otherwise).
In light of this reality, I am afraid Bryson’s protestations come across as a tad hysterical, irrational and insecure. They amount to little more than paranoia.
Dare I say, in the context of a proposal aimed at bringing together the international-level representative teams of the two main or native communities in the north of Ireland for a combined congratulatory celebration, it is the likes of Bryson, rather than the SDLP, who are actually being divisive here by their objections. The fear of any form or show of unity, togetherness or sharedness with nationalism is palpable.
Or perhaps Bryson knows full well what he is doing and is cynically attempting to stir a rabble by conflating the relatively trivial matter of a civic reception with the much grander question of constitutional sovereignty?
Perhaps he is engaging in demagoguery, for if he truly believed that the SDLP’s proposal (and other matters relating to flags and symbols) equated to an assault or illegal attack upon the constitutional law or status of the jurisdiction, he and groups like the Ulster People’s Forum, to which he has been affiliated, could and surely would simply have initiated proceedings with the legislative courts accordingly.
Of course, no-one has ever even threatened to initiate such proceedings, for there is no legal case to be made. This aptly demonstrates the vacuity and pettiness that forms the toothless backbone of Bryson’s stroppy outcry.
As a useful parallel for comparison, it is not as if the joint civic reception already agreed for Dublin or the recognition of the success of the Northern Ireland team by the Dublin City Council will threaten the very foundations of the southern state.
The purpose of the ceremony is simply to extend a warm gesture of congratulations to fellow Irishmen; to celebrate the achievements of all Irishmen who have qualified for Euro 2016 and to wish them all the best in the tournament.
It is unfortunate that Bryson views the entirely fair and reasonable eradication of unionist or Protestant supremacy and the strengthening of equality in the north as a threat to the security of his identity.
His identity has not lost any of its character or protections to nationalism in the process of northern society evolving into a fairer and more equal one.
The reality is now simply that nationalists have attained greater social and economic parity (although there is still progress to be made on the cultural front), whilst unionism unmistakably remains top-dog politically and constitutionally despite the enshrined parity-of-esteem principle.
All this compels me to ask the question: does Bryson actually feel he is defined by his own identity alone or is it more accurate to say that he defines himself by the supremacy he feels his identity should be entitled to enjoy over the identity of others whom he perhaps regards as his social or ethno-cultural inferiors?
And whilst Bryson pays lip-service to the principle of consent that presently ensures the north’s continued political attachment to Britain, can we actually trust that he would comply with the wishes of a democratic majority in the northern jurisdiction – what Liam Ó Ruairc has characterised as a gerrymandered “democracy” – in the eventuality of a vote for Irish unity?
It is easy to espouse democracy and declare oneself a democrat when one has the winds of the majority in their sails, but Bryson’s reaction to previous decisions taken by democratically-elected bodies would raise significant levels of doubt as to his commitment to democratic ideals.
One suspects the likes of Bryson will invoke the consent principle only for so long as it suits them to do so, or for so long as unionism enjoys a majority within the north, in other words. After, they’ll appeal to some other “principles”.
Meanwhile, Billy Hutchinson appeared to possess a similar sense of cultural supremacy and entitlement with regard to the matter of the proposed reception. He was much less shameless in presenting his views than the aforementioned others.
His menacing warning – at best, an attempt to stir or pander to the basest of sectarian loyalist emotions and, at worst, a veiled threat – that there may be a “massive loyalist protest [at Belfast City Hall] comparable to the [illegal] flag protests” if the reception goes ahead would have been laughable if it had not been so depressingly serious.
Disappointingly, for a representative of a party that professes to be progressive, he also saw fit to single out Derry’s James McClean as being especially unwelcome to Belfast City Hall on account of the player’s decision not to wear a Remembrance poppy each year.
As Squinter tweeted yesterday: