Last week, the Belfast City Council discussed and approved the motion to invite the Republic of Ireland football team to Belfast City Hall for a civic reception with the Northern Ireland team to celebrate the simultaneous qualification of the two sides for Euro 2016. Whilst numerous councillors – nationalist, unionist and non-aligned – contributed to the debate, it was the offering of Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party that provided a stand-out moment of oddity.
In outlining why he felt the Republic of Ireland team should not have been invited or welcomed to Belfast, Hutchinson, like Jim Rodgers of the Ulster Unionist Party had done before him, sought to make issue of the eligibility of northern-born Irish nationals to play for the FAI’s team.
In a bizarre and completely inaccurate “explanation” of “facts”, Hutchinson asserted that “the whole notion of whether you can play for Northern Ireland or whether you can play for the Republic goes back to the days of Sepp Blatter“. He then mentioned Blatter’s recent ban from all football-related activities, imposed upon him by FIFA’s Ethics Committee, along with the FBI’s investigation into alleged FIFA corruption, as if to imply a direct connection between the eligibility of northern-born Irish nationals to play for the Republic of Ireland and corruption at the governing body.
For a man who arrogantly commanded others who wished to speak on the matter to “know the facts” after having purported in self-aggrandising fashion to know football “inside-out”, Hutchinson’s lack understanding of FIFA’s eligibility regulations was both staggering and embarrassing.
Of course, Hutchinson’s contribution was simply another tedious attempt, rooted in ignorance at best and intolerance at worst, to denigrate the Irish nationality of northern nationalists as well as cast doubt over the legal validity and moral uprightness of the right – a right shared by every other national by birth around the globe under a long-standing regulation – of northern-born Irish nationals to declare for their country on account of their birth-right to Irish nationality.
There is no stronger legal connection to a country or nation in international jurisprudence than a connection by birth, yet, according to Hutchinson, northern nationalists won their right to play for their country through corruption. How insulting.
Was he insinuating that Blatter may have paid a favour to the FAI in return for a vote or that the FAI might have paid Blatter a backhander in order to win a favour?
The plausibility of such a theory is frankly nil, considering the regulations by which the FAI are bound are the same ones that apply to all other member associations of FIFA. FIFA’s eligibility regulations are universal in their application.
Hutchinson’s “understanding” of the matter is from the same school of thought as another common misconception that endures amongst Northern Ireland supporters; that variant runs that the FAI benefited from the hasty passing of a unique and exclusive ruling by FIFA – inspired by the acknowledgement of northerners’ entitlement to Irish nationality in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – to accord special rights to the FAI in the mid-2000s.
The actual origin of the line of evolving main eligibility rules that have rendered international footballers eligible to play for their respective countries has long preceded Blatter’s first presidency of FIFA, which commenced in 1998. Indeed, players like Belfast-born Ger Crossley and Derry-born Mark McKeever played for the FAI on account of their Irish nationality before Blatter ever assumed control of the world governing body.
Hutchinson also seemed oblivious of the fact that an independent arbiter, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), had, in the case of CAS 2010/A/2071, IFA v/ FAI, Kearns & FIFA, looked at the eligibility matter in depth and ruled in favour of northern-born Irish nationals, the FAI and FIFA. Surely he was not implicating the CAS in the supposed conspiracy too?
To be as generous as possible to Hutchinson – he assuming the IFA were victims of a conspiracy specifically orchestrated against them – his narrative could only be described as downright paranoid.