The Fuss over Inviting the Ireland Football Team to Belfast: A Problem of Trust and Respect

Belfast_City_Hall_2007 (1)

Belfast City Hall (Wknight94; CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Last Tuesday, the 5th of January, the motion proposed at Belfast City Council to invite the two Irish international-level football teams to a joint civic reception at Belfast City Hall on account of both teams’ qualification for Euro 2016 was upheld. Amendment proposals forwarded by the Ulster Unionist Party and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were defeated by 33-20 and 34-22, respectively.

The amendment proposals purported to seek to invite the England and Wales teams along with inviting the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland teams, as had been proposed by the original motion. I outlined in a previous piece why I felt such amendment suggestions to be nothing more than deceptive charades.

Whilst the meeting to debate the matter had been ongoing inside, the loyalist Protestant Coalition had helped organise a demonstration in protest outside. In total, five protesters turned upLoyalist activist Jamie Bryson also condemned events within, describing the democratically-taken decision as “[d]isgraceful” and advised that “Unionists and the [Irish Football Association (IFA)] should boycott the political stunt”This is a man who so blithely and unashamedly expects others to respect his asserted right to a democratic voice. Not that his voice should be suppressed, but the rich hypocrisy in his objection was palpable.

Unfortunately, the entire episode was symptomatic of the deep communal mistrust that still riddles and hampers northern politics, or might it be more accurate to suggest that the root of impasse is an impenetrable intransigence within mainstream political unionism to notions of compromise, equity or even simple good-will towards nationalists?

Alas, perhaps such a suggestion is a manifestation of the very mistrust to which I refer! Maybe political unionism is open to true parity and generosity, but it’s just that I find it really, really hard to detect sometimes…

Whilst nationalists broadly viewed the proposal as a benign and innocent gesture for the purpose of celebrating (along with the achievement of the Northern Ireland team) the success of the footballing representatives of their independent and all-island Irish national identity – indeed, even the non-aligned Alliance Party, Green Party and People Before Profit Alliance had little issue with backing the proposal – many unionists and Northern Ireland supporters (although not all, to be fair) perceived it to be a cheap and cynical political stunt designed to stir their ire and wind them up.

Regardless of whether even that was the motive or not, it remains difficult to comprehend just how any reasonable person could seriously object to or be wound up by the potential presence in Belfast of a football team supported by nearly half the northern football-supporting population for what would be little more than a tea-party. Honestly, like…

Civic receptions to acknowledge sporting achievements are nothing out of the ordinary for Belfast City Council. Indeed, the Northern Ireland team were invited to an exclusive one for just themselves last November, whilst, earlier last year, the council put through a motion to invite the all-island Irish rugby team; like the Republic of Ireland football team, a team made up of and representative of both northerners and southerners. It took “all of ten seconds”.

If such civic receptions are the norm – and it is fitting and broadly uncontroversial that local communities should wish to extend thanks and congratulations to their sporting representatives – is there any compelling reason as to why the Republic of Ireland team should not be extended an invite too? If there is, I have yet to hear it.

Though only five persons may have turned up to protest against the vote last Tuesday – an inconsequential number in the grand scheme of things – this should not necessarily lead reasonable nationalists, unionists and non-aligned persons – those tolerant of diversity and supportive of true equality – to assume that all is rosy.

Indeed, whilst a larger protest might well be organised for the day players from the Republic of Ireland team do eventually visit – assuming the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) accept the impending invitation – it is of the cloaked myopic intolerance of mainstream political unionism that the more reasonable should truly be wary, for it is much more insidious in its seemingly-moderate manifestations. Indeed, mainstream unionism has pandered to and indulged anti-democratic loyalist elements in the past.

There appears to be an unfortunate presumption, living and breathing within these “more moderate” quarters, that nationalists whose cultural orientation guides them towards supporting the Republic of Ireland are being driven by bigotry or intolerance rather than simply being guided by their communal sense of identity.

Nationalists are met with criticism purely for not getting behind the Northern Ireland team. Of course, it is their human right not to do so and they need not apologise, excuse themselves or feel shame for who they are, but such criticism is as if to say they should automatically affiliate or lay down their allegiance to an entity many, in reality, view as culturally-irrelevant. Of course, plenty of nationalists will have no issue with wishing their neighbours’ team good wishes, but direct criticism for an absence of support would be akin to expecting nationalists to support England, Scotland or Wales.

Nationalists have every right and entitlement to support the Republic of Ireland, to express such in a peaceful, democratic manner (that does not impose or encroach upon the independence, privacy and rights of others) and to feel national pride in doing so without being accused of sectarianism. Unionists have the same entitlement with regard to how they wish to emphasise or preserve their identity.

As M. John Harrison once wrote:

Identity is not negotiable. An identity you have achieved by agreement is always a prison.

Indeed, for many nationalists, the notion of supporting Northern Ireland would be tantamount to honouring the contentious and unionist-loyalist symbolism under which the team plays and would furthermore be degrading to them on account of what that symbolism represents historically.

Critics of nationalists insist that the Northern Ireland team is a cross-communal team that is or can be inclusive of the nationalist community. Provided, that is, nationalists are prepared to conform to the unionist ideal by standing to attention during ‘God Save the Queen’ with the unofficial “Ulster Banner” waving over them…

It is only fair to highlight that the IFA do run a cross-communal ‘Football for All’ programme – which has helped soften the perception that they are associated with just one side of the community over recent years – whilst the explicit sectarianism exhibited amongst elements of the wider support-base has also been largely eradicated from at least the stands of Windsor Park.

However, the IFA still continue to wrap their team in the aforementioned overtly-unionist symbolism, much to the satisfaction of thousands of their active supporters, and then these very same supporters get indignant when non-unionists have the “audacity” to look elsewhere for their sporting or cultural stimuli or channel their identity through an entity to which they feel they can more truly relate culturally.

They insist that nationalists “need to move on from the past” – it is rarely they themselves who “need to move on” – whilst hypocritically expecting nationalists to pay tribute to outdated, monarchist or obsolete symbolism. The IFA and Northern Ireland supporters are, of course, free to identify as they wish, but don’t they see a glaring and problematic contradiction in their position?

There was a text-book example of this sort of criticism commonly directed the way of nationalists aired during the meeting debate last Tuesday. Councillor Brian Kingston of the DUP  had stated that it was regrettable that some of his fellow councillors had declared that they did not support Northern Ireland. According to Kingston, they were “sending out the wrong message”.

Was he suggesting then that there ought to exist some obligation upon councillors to lay down their allegiance to Northern Ireland; that it is wrong of them to support the Republic of Ireland instead?

Or was he implying that those who do not wish to conform to his preferences should suppress their voice, identity and diversity? How dictatorial, intolerant, condescending and insulting. Councillors, be they nationalist or unionist, are free to send out whatever message they like; they don’t need Kingston’s seal of approval.

Kingston also opined, along similar lines to the oft-ridiculed Jamie Bryson actually, that the civic reception proposal was “founded in an all-Ireland agenda”, as if to imply that an invite to the FAI might threaten the constitutional status of the northern jurisdiction – it is rather obvious it would not – or as if to say there was something inherently or morally wrong with espousing an ideal to unite all persons on the island of Ireland.

The unity ideal is explicitly acknowledged as an entirely legitimate aspiration in the Good Friday Agreement. Not that an agreement with unionists and the British state was required by nationalists to tell them their aspirations were legitimate anyway.

It was certainly rich for Kingston to accuse nationalists of being divisive, however, by supposedly-impeding the “build[ing of] a united community together” when the raison d’être of his party is to oppose Irish unity and keep the broader Irish community split by maintaining Ireland’s division into two politically-partitioned territories.

In apparent objection to the proposal under discussion, Kingston went on to make the claim that inviting the Northern Ireland team back for another civic reception was unnecessary and argued that it “detracted” from the sentiment of the previous reception. He suggested that it made the Belfast City Council look “disorganised”.

Of course, the previous reception had been agreed and occurred before the Republic of Ireland – who had to qualify through the play-offs – had confirmed their place at the finals.

Might he then have been open to inviting the Republic of Ireland team along for an event to celebrate their success exclusively? Not at all, you can be sure.

In further-disapproving vein, he raised the notion that the logistics of bringing together the two island teams by the summer might be difficult on account of player schedules, before then paradoxically proposing, instead, the invitation, along with the Northern Ireland team, of the “three other [qualifying] national teams from the British Isles; namely England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland”.

Use of such loaded terminology – what An Sionnach Fionn has termed “anachronistic and frankly revanchist” – to refer to the four qualifying teams from Britain and Ireland was, of course, deliberately incendiary. The southern Irish government advises against use of the term “British Isles”, whilst the British government correspondingly avoids it.

Let me provide a brief outline of the inapplicability of the term: Ireland is not a British isle politically, nor is it part of Britain (also referred to as Great Britain, of course) geographically. Neither is it a possession of Britain. Incidentally, the use of the prefix “Great” before “Britain” distinguishes Great Britain, otherwise known in Latin as Britannia major, not from Ireland – as is sometimes incorrectly assumed – but from Britannia minor, which translates as “Lesser Britain” and approximates to the modern-day Celtic region of Brittany in north-west France.

Furthermore, Ireland’s predominant lingua-cultural history is Goidelic, or Gaelic; Ireland has never been culturally Brittonic, from where the name of Britain is derived on account of Common Brittonic (which later evolved into the various Brittonic languages) having been widely spoken there by the people who inhabited it, the Britons. The Goidelic and Brittonic lingual branches are indeed both Celtic in origin, but they are understood to have evolved separately and simultaneously on either side of the Irish Sea, in Ireland and Britain respectively, from a common Insular Celtic predecessor.

The contemporary incarnation of the term “British”, latterly misappropriated by the non-Brittonic English crown, only ever came to be applied (inappropriately) over Ireland in the late sixteenth century by the crown (and by force) in tandem with, or in attempted justification of, the latter’s politico-military conquests and activities; exploits that impacted severely upon the Irish people, landowners and native aristocracy. The term’s connotations are thus unavoidably political. Indeed, Welsh nationalist Gwynfor Evans once described Britishness as “a political synonym for Englishness which extends English culture over the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish”.

Anyhow, Kingston was now supposedly claiming, like the UUP’s Jim Rodgers had done just as disingenuously before him on BBC’s Talkback, to be backing the invitation of four teams rather than just two. How the adding of two further teams was going to make the logistics of organising the affair any easier remains a mystery. Like Rodgers, Kingston  appeared to be engaging in double-think, or, more accurately, was throwing forward an absurd non-runner of an idea under the pretence of “offering compromise” in full knowledge it would be rejected.

Just to return to Kingston’s comment with regard to him finding it “unhelpful” that certain other councillors had expressed that they had no affiliation with his team; the Northern Ireland are loftily and disingenuously framed by those such as Kingston as a sort of cross-community “moral project” which ought to trump all other causes, concerns and considerations and to which all “right-thinking” people, or at least everybody who believes in the positive ideals of cross-communal “togetherness” or “reconciliation”, ought to subscribe unconditionally, for who could be so contrary or misanthropic as to object to such positive and heart-warming concepts as togetherness and reconciliation?…

This is superficial wrapping to facilitate the concealment of Kingston’s actual priority, of course. It is a sentimental rhetorical tool rooted more in the Machiavellian art of persuading, influencing and manipulating others towards his particular political view-point rather than in a genuine concern for the ideals to which he pays lip-service. It presents a false dilemma – “either you support Northern Ireland or you must be against togetherness and reconciliation (and are therefore of flawed or suspect character)” – and completely fails to appreciate diversity within the north along with the psyche, aspirations and motivations of the nationalist community.

Of course nationalists can and do espouse the ideals of togetherness and reconciliation, but they are entitled to do so on their own terms rather than on the terms of expectant unionists and self-proclaimed “moderates” motivated by vested self-interest.

These pontificators make expectations and demands of nationalists that they would never make of themselves. The Republic of Ireland team or the ideal of Irish unity could just as easily be presented to them in similar terms – as a “moral project” which nationalists expect unionists to support – and unionists and Northern Ireland supporters could be asked – just as expectantly, judgmentally or dismissively – in reverse: “C’mon, isn’t it about time you just got behind the idea of a united Ireland or a united Ireland team?”

Naturally, those ideals might seem compelling to nationalists and republicans – for what it’s worth, the concept of a single united team is supported by a majority of people in the north – but Northern Ireland supporters and unionists would perceive such a question to be ignorant, patronising and provocative, and they would be justified to feel that way, for it would be to completely ignore their sensitivities, fears, interests and aspirations.

Likewise, nationalists or republicans could just as easily cast aspersions upon Kingston’s character by declaring it unhelpful to their goals and aspirations that he refuses to support the idea of a united all-island team, but most observers would deem that unreasonable and you can be sure he would sternly resist the notion that his integrity merited question as a consequence. Just as supporting Irish unity does not make someone a bad person, neither does disagreeing with the ideal of a united Ireland. If anything, such disagreement means nationalists and republicans have not done a good enough job convincing those disagreeing of the merits of the unity position.

I think it is time people should be honest with themselves and one another; Northern Ireland supporters and unionists want their team on their terms – a team that matches their identity and perspective – just as Republic of Ireland fans and nationalists want the very same thing. It just happens that nationalists take their national cues from elsewhere and identify with another cultural ideal. This is irrespective of whatever symbols the IFA espouse.

The general trust problem that permeates unionist-nationalist relationships was aptly illustrated yesterday by the somewhat circumlocutory response of newly-incumbent DUP leader and first minister of the north Arlene Foster to a question by interviewer Sam McBride of the News Letter as to whether or not she trusted deputy first minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin. She replied:

I trust him to be a republican and I certainly trust that he will always look at things from the prism of republicanism. And he knows that I will look at things from the prism of what’s right for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

That’s northern politics for you…


One comment

  1. […] week, the Belfast City Council discussed and approved the matter of inviting the Republic of Ireland football …. Whilst numerous councillors, both nationalist and unionist, contributed to the debate, it was the […]


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