Did Michael O’Neill Accuse the Football Association of Ireland of Pursuing a Sectarian Recruitment Policy?

(Updated below.)

Michael O'Neill

Michael O’Neill (Neil9327; CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

On the 4th of March, MSN.com and Extra.ie co-published an article by Philip Quinn wherein the manager of the Northern Ireland football team, Michael O’Neill, was quoted as having accused the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) of employing a “sectarian” policy in respect of the association’s recruitment and selection of Irish nationals born in the north of Ireland. To accuse the FAI of conducting such a policy was a very serious and defamatory allegation.

The article, however, was deleted the following day from those sites that had published it. It is not clear why the articles were removed from public view. As a result, it also remains unclear as to whether or not the quotes attributed to O’Neill were definitely genuine.*

For now, Quinn’s article remains published only on PressFrom.com. This appears to be a website that duplicates news stories and content originating from other media sources around the internet rather than producing its own original content.

At the time of publication of this blog piece, the Irish Football Association (IFA) had yet to confirm or deny whether their senior men’s team manager had actually accused their Dublin-based counterparts of running a sectarian recruitment policy.**

The IFA’s silence has certainly been suspicious. Surely it would not take the IFA a full 24 hours to contact their senior men’s team manager and provide confirmation via a tweet or some other form of instant communication that the alleged quotes were indeed bogus, unless, of course, the quotes were genuine and an embarrassed IFA are keen not to draw any further attention to the matter…

Philip Quinn is a reputable Irish sports reporter who puts his credibility and profession on the line every time he writes something for publication. He has a journalistic code of ethics to which he must adhere. If he did not adhere to this code, he would no longer be in a job. I am therefore inclined to believe that he would not concoct bogus quotes simply in order to stir controversy and provoke greater interest in his writing.

As a result, the IFA’s silence on the matter lends weight to the suspicion that the article might have been pulled by the publishers upon the request of the Belfast-based association, possibly in fear of negative fall-out on account of what, if truly made, were very incendiary and undiplomatic allegations by one of the association’s most prominent public representatives.

Even if the quotes were not genuine, it is clear that they are nevertheless representative of an existing popular sentiment amongst the Northern Ireland team’s support-base. This is evidenced in part by the following selection of Twitter comments, some of them liked and re-tweeted by the dozen.

(As an aside, Jamie Bryson oddly appears to be oblivious to the fact that numerous players from the Northern Ireland team were not actually born in the IFA’s territory. In fact, Michael O’Neill is presently pursuing Croydon-born Sean Scannell – who previously played for the FAI from under-17 level through to under-21 level and then ‘B’ level, having qualified to play for Ireland through his Armagh-born father – in order to try and convince the player to switch to the IFA. Does Bryson wish to see Northern Ireland players who were born outside of the statelet banished from playing for the team he supports? It is doubtful, so it might be advisable for him to demonstrate greater consideration for the logical conclusions of his words in future…)

As the content of Quinn’s article seems to have been popularly received by Northern Ireland supporters, I feel it is appropriate to dissect, scrutinise and challenge much of what was written and quoted, for a lot of it was either suspect and in serious need of further substantiation or was simply misleading.

It is both surprising and troubling that so many people appeared willing to lap it up and accept O’Neill’s claims as valid. For the purpose of dissecting what was written, I will assume that what O’Neill was quoted by Quinn to have said was genuine.

Quinn wrote:

Michael O’Neill has rebuked the FAI for what he believes are ‘sectarian’ tactics regarding their pursuit of Northern Ireland-born players.

The first Ulster-born Catholic to manage Northern Ireland, O’Neill has labelled the FAI’s sourcing of Northern players as ‘weasel-like’ and claims defender Paddy McNair was only considered because of his name.

‘The FAI ever only approach one type of player: Catholic. You could argue that’s sectarian in terms of your recruitment, couldn’t you?’ suggested O’Neill.

‘They (FAI) thought Paddy must be a Catholic and when they found out he was a Protestant, they stayed away from it,’ said O’Neill.

What or where is O’Neill’s evidence for such claims? How do those who suspect the FAI of conducting a sectarian selection policy know that these presumed Catholic players did not initiate contact with the FAI?

Seeing as O’Neill has made similar allegations in the past – he claimed that Jordan and Aaron McEneff were approached by the FAI – and those allegations turned out to be mistaken, can the manager’s words on the matter be trusted as reliable now?

If the FAI are indeed frequently initiating contact with northern players, how does O’Neill know that alleged approaches are made specifically on the basis of that player’s presumed religion (as opposed to possibly arising as a result of tip-offs from third parties or other persons – such as club coaches, former players or club team-mates – who may not be formally tied to the association but who may have informal links to connected individuals and be aware of a particular player’s national identification and true international allegiance)?

How does O’Neill know that the FAI were supposedly interested in Paddy McNair if the association in fact “stayed away from it”? That would imply that the FAI did not actually approach the player. How does O’Neill know the FAI thought McNair was a Catholic and how would the IFA have actually heard wind of this alleged mistaken belief on the part of the FAI? How did the Dublin association’s alleged sunken plot to make a swoop for the player come to light?

Unless somebody from the FAI had been providing O’Neill with a running commentary of the association’s alleged recruitment procedure, how did O’Neill know the FAI found out McNair was a Protestant? How would the FAI have found this out and how can O’Neill be sure that it was McNair’s Protestant background that dissuaded the FAI, if they were indeed contemplating an approach?

The theory that there exists a sectarian agenda on the part of the FAI can be debunked simply by observing the multicultural make-up of the FAI’s teams. Players from all sorts of ethnic and religious heritages – from Catholic, Protestant to Muslim – have played for the FAI.

In fact, players of Ulster Protestant background or heritage – such as Alan Kernaghan, Alex Bruce and Adam Barton – have even lined out for FAI teams. The FAI are evidently happy to entertain any player who is good enough to play for the association, so long as he is an eligible Irish national.

Quinn continued:

The five players born in the North capped for the Republic of Ireland at senior level by Martin O’Neill are all Catholic: James McClean, Shane Duffy, Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and Eunan O’Kane.

Eunan O’Kane is actually a humanist, but it is hardly a surprise that most of the FAI’s players from north of the border also come from Catholic backgrounds, seeing as it is generally people from Catholic backgrounds in the north who identify as nationally Irish. That is the political, cultural, social and historical reality of the place.

The fact that it is mainly players from Catholic backgrounds in the north who tend to declare for the FAI does not constitute some sort of proof that the FAI are operating a sectarian recruitment policy. Rather, it is an indication that, if the chance arises, players from northern Catholic backgrounds might have a preference or inclination to play for the FAI that is not shared by the vast majority of their counterparts from the Protestant community.

The number of persons from the Protestant community in the north who support the FAI’s team ahead of the IFA’s team would be rather small. Most northern Protestants tend to be cultural unionists and would instead identify as British and/or Northern Irish. Thus, they would tend to support the Northern Ireland team.

As a result, it is highly unlikely that significant numbers of Protestants from the north would ever wish to represent the FAI’s team, so it is only to be expected that they would not opt to play for the FAI or end up in FAI squads. It is not that they would be unwelcome in FAI squads; rather, it is that they, by and large, simply do not wish to play for the FAI.

It is also worth noting that it is a matter of public record that James McClean, Shane Duffy and Marc Wilson, for example, all initiated contact with the FAI themselves (or through a family member or agent) when they sought to declare for the association, whilst Darron Gibson’s ultimate desire to represent Ireland was always well-known, even to his IFA youth coaches.

When Eunan O’Kane was asked by the FAI if he would be interested in switching, he was 21, had not been featuring in IFA squads for a considerable period of time and had already been of the opinion that “[his] opportunity wasn’t going to come playing for Northern Ireland”.

Quinn went on to write:

While there is speculation another Catholic, QPR striker Paul Smyth, a Belfast-born GAA fan, may be tempted to switch ranks under the contentious FIFA rule which allows a player born anywhere on the island to declare for the Republic.

Perhaps it is unwitting on the part of Quinn, but this is not an accurate or complete portrayal of the rule in question. There is no FIFA rule uniquely or specifically tailored to favour the FAI. The rule in question – article 5 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes – is not contentious and features the long-standing general eligibility principle. It applies to approximately 180 other associations, along with the FAI, and states that “[a]ny 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”.

National identity, which transcends territorial boundaries, is the foundation of international teams and, whilst the application of Irish nationality law obviously extends island-wide for those who desire its embrace, only Irish nationals can play for Ireland. If a player born in the north of Ireland is a British citizen only, he is not eligible to play for the FAI.

O’Neill was then quoted by Quinn as stating the following:

‘You can’t assume just because a player from the North watches GAA that he wants to play for the Republic of Ireland. I liked the GAA, so did Jim Magilton, and Martin O’Neill,’ said O’Neill. ‘There was a recent article about Paul Smyth, which could easily have been written a few years ago about Stuart Dallas, when he was breaking into Brentford team.

‘But Stuart wasn’t mentioned. Why? Because he’s Protestant. That’s what annoys us the most.

Was O’Neill conflating media speculation with a supposed FAI policy? Have the FAI assumed Paul Smyth wants to play for Ireland? How would O’Neill know this? Simply on the basis of a speculative newspaper article?

Quinn proceeded:

O’Neill questioned the FAI’s ‘unscrupulous’ means of sourcing players with a direct bloodline to Northern Ireland.

Everything the FAI do in respect of player recruitment is permitted within the confines of the same set of eligibility rules (articles 5 to 8 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the FIFA Statutes) by which every other association is uniformly bound, so their conduct is hardly “unscrupulous”, nor is it even unique.

International footballers often switch between associations. The universally-applying provision in article 8 of the regulations permits any dual or multi-eligible player to switch association once from his original association to a second association for whom he is also eligible, so long as he has not played a competitive senior game for his original association.

This entitlement, formerly effective only before the age of 21, was introduced into the regulations by FIFA in 2004 in order to protect young players (whose feelings can naturally change over time) from becoming prematurely cap-tied to self-interested, “cap-happy” or potentially unscrupulous associations, whilst the restriction on switching after the age of 21 was lifted in 2009.

The IFA have actually taken advantage of this provision themselves on numerous occasions. It is how they obtained the services of players like Alex Bruce (who had previously played for the FAI) and Oliver Norwood (who had previously played for the English FA), for example. They continue to take advantage of it as they attempt to persuade Sean Scannell to join their ranks.

Even the situation whereby FIFA acknowledge the validity of the effect of one country’s nationality laws over the territory of the association of another state or jurisdiction is not unique. The scope of jus sanguinis (right of blood) citizenship is not limited by territorial boundaries at all and can assume effect anywhere on the planet irrespective of place of birth. FIFA recognise this as it is a common and long-standing feature of the nationality law of many nation states.

Meanwhile, Irish nationality law extends island-wide on the basis of a combination of the jus soli (right of the soil) and jus sanguinis principles. There is at least one known analogy to the Irish situation elsewhere in the world; Muzzy Izzet and Colin Kazim-Richards, for example, were eligible to play for Turkey on the basis of their (Northern or Turkish) Cypriot parentage because the effect of Turkish citizenship law, which is primarily based on the jus sanguinis principle whilst also possessing a jus soli element, extends extra-territorially over what only Turkey, out of the entire international community, recognises as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, even though FIFA simultaneously recognise the entire island of Cyprus as the de jure territory of the Cyprus Football Association.

Therefore, Northern or Turkish Cypriots are entitled to make themselves available to play for the Turkish national team. The entitlement is based on their birthright to Turkish nationality – despite their superficial territorial connection to Cyprus – and is permitted by FIFA because the world governing body also recognise that it is up to nation states themselves to construct and define their own citizenship laws as they see fit and that it is not the place of football administrators to interfere with or neuter birthright entitlements.

A significant difference between this case and Ireland, however, is that the island-wide effect of Irish nationality law is multilaterally agreed (since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998) and is, as a result, no longer a matter of diplomatic contention or dispute (as it had been prior to this, ever since the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956 first gave island-wide effect to Irish nationality in 1956).

The island-wide effect of Irish nationality law is democratically agreed, is entirely legal, legitimate and above board and should not be a contentious issue for anyone but bigots who seek to demean, deny or erase the national identity (and associated rights) of others.

Neither does it matter to where else players who are eligible to play for the FAI might have a “direct bloodline”; if they are Irish nationals under Irish citizenship law (which the Irish government, as a sovereign entity, is entitled to determine as it sees fit) and they satisfy the relevant FIFA eligibility criteria, they are just as eligible to play for the FAI. The fact that a northern-born Irish national may have a “direct bloodline” to the territory of the IFA does not give the IFA some special or prioritised claim over that player.

By insidiously raising the notion of a “direct bloodline” to the IFA’s territory, as if to suggest this renders a northern player’s eligibility for the IFA more robust, pure or kosher than his eligibility for the FAI, O’Neill comes dangerously close to denying the validity of the nationality of Irish nationals in the north. He implicitly diminishes its status, as if to say it is secondary to the “direct bloodline”. It is exceptionally poor form for O’Neill to engage in this sort of insulting dog-whistling.

Irish nationals born in the north of Ireland are Irish nationals as of birthright, just like Irish nationals born anywhere else on the island. Nationality as of birthright is as intimate and authentic a connection you can get to a particular country or nation in citizenship and nationality jurisprudence internationally. There is no closer connection.

Quinn went on to quote O’Neill again:

‘There is no consultation, the Republic just go and weasel away and take the player,’ he said.

It appears that O’Neill thinks the FAI require the IFA’s permission to facilitate northern-born Irish nationals who wish to play for their country. The FAI require no such permission from the IFA and are entitled to select any player who is eligible and willing to play for them.

Quinn continued to quote O’Neill:

‘Daniel Devine of Partick Thistle is a West Belfast boy and would have gone to Euros (2016) with us. Only he can’t play for Northern Ireland as he’s signed an international transfer.’

‘They (FAI) don’t really care about the player, just care about taking him.

‘They’ve taken Northern Ireland players and not played them, Daniel was one, Rory Hale another. Rory Brown, a goalkeeper is the most recent.

‘I can list you 10 players who’ve made that decision and have never represented the Republic.

‘Why take them? What is point of asking a player to change his allegiance, to make a decision about his whole international future, and then not pick him?’

Those players to whom O’Neill referred are not unconscious automatons. They would have made a voluntary decision – most likely with the close involvement and assistance of their families and friends – and would have weighed up the benefits and the risks of declaring for the FAI. The FAI would then have facilitated their choice.

It is rather patronising for O’Neill to suggest that these players lacked a sense of personal agency and it is insulting to imply they might have been misled by their own identity and sensibilities.

O’Neill obviously knows deep down that these players make an informed choice themselves and that the FAI do not place any demand upon them, but it does not suit his accusatory narrative – one that virtually frames the FAI as swindlers, if not kidnappers – to explicitly acknowledge that.

It is also rather disingenuous of him to insinuate that these players would have been guaranteed international careers had they instead opted to continue making themselves available for selection by the IFA. The IFA are just as self-interested and opportunistic as any other association.

Has Alex Bruce, for example, enjoyed a long and fruitful international career with the IFA since his decision to switch from the FAI after Nigel Worthington contacted him back in 2011? Not exactly; Bruce eventually picked up two friendly caps for the Northern Ireland team in 2013 and 2014 but hasn’t represented the Northern Ireland team since.

Or what about Shane McEleney, who also switched from the FAI to the IFA in 2012 after direct talks with Michael O’Neill himself? McEleney actually revealed that O’Neill “was torturing [him] for a wee while” about switching, yet the player has since been completely ignored by O’Neill at senior level. O’Neill is guilty of galling hypocrisy when he scolds his FAI counterparts for allegedly asking players to switch and then not picking them.

And isn’t it entirely possible that players who opt to switch from the IFA to the FAI are happier to be simply fighting for a chance to represent their country than they would be racking up caps for an entity with which they don’t culturally or nationally identify?

It is also worth noting that Rory Hale, whose example O’Neill attempts to cite as a cautionary tale for northern players who might be considering taking the perceived risk of declaring for the FAI, has actually been selected in the FAI’s under-21 squad twice since switching. Hale also happens to be another player who has made it publicly known that he initiated contact with the FAI when he decided he wanted to switch and that it was not the other way around or a case of the FAI approaching him.

Meanwhile, Rory Brown only switched association a number of months ago, yet has been selected by the FAI in under-18 and under-19 squads.

Interestingly, O’Neill actually used to name-check Eunan O’Kane when he delivered his cautionary tales in the past. In 2015, O’Neill warned that O’Kane had “not progressed [with the FAI] as he would have progressed with [the IFA]” because “the competition for places is greater [at the FAI] than it is for [the Northern Ireland team]”. Since O’Neill made those untimely remarks, however, O’Kane has gone on to win seven senior caps (and counting) for the FAI. Fancy that!

Could it be possible that O’Neill is merely professing concern for young players as an emotive pretext to somewhat disguise the fact that he is primarily just looking out for the interests of his own association?

O’Neill was further quoted by Quinn as saying:

‘I don’t have a problem with James McClean. He was 22 years of age, he knew what he wanted. I have a problem when it’s a 16, 17 or 18-year-old.’

The complaint from Northern Ireland quarters used to be that the players who switched to the FAI were hanging around in the IFA’s youth teams for too long. It was argued that these players were taking up precious squad places that other eligible players who were omitted as a consequence might have benefited from or valued more.

This was despite the fact that the IFA have always been content to continue selecting talented players that they know would rather be representing the FAI if such an opportunity presented itself for these players.

The IFA have been happy to play this game of risk because, as outlined above, they ultimately operate in pursuit of their own self-interest, just like any other association, and they stand to benefit from maintaining such relationships on the chance that ambivalent players will eventually commit and opt to stick with the association for good.

It was also previously argued that these players who were allegedly hanging around too long were wasting IFA resources as a result. This was despite the fact that the IFA receive public assistance and funding, which derives from taxes and rates that also happen to be paid by the north’s Ireland-supporting nationalist community.

The north is, of course, a bi-communal or bi-national society where the concept of parity of esteem is enshrined in its quasi-constitution and its nationalist community are perfectly happy to see players from their community – players whom the community’s money has helped develop too – declare for the FAI’s team, for that is the national team that the community supports.

So, whilst the complaint was once that players were not switching early enough, now the complaint is that the players are supposedly switching too early. The message is rather muddled and incoherent. In fact, it would seem that no matter at what age the FAI facilitate the transfer of northern-born Irish nationals, they will be damned.

It was telling that when Dominic Ball, who represented the IFA from under-15 level through to under-21 level a total of 24 times, switched from the IFA to the English FA in 2013 at the age of 18, there was not a hint of outrage or outcry from Michael O’Neill, the IFA or supporters of the Northern Ireland team and directed towards the English FA or Dominic Ball.

Contrast this with O’Neill’s berating of the FAI or with the hatred and abuse reserved by some supporters of the Northern Ireland team for the FAI, Ireland supporters and northern-born Ireland players such as James McClean (who even the supposedly “moderate” Belfast Telegraph once described in a headline as a “turncoat”), Darron Gibson (who first played for the FAI at under-17 level) and Shane Duffy (who was 18 when he switched from the IFA to the FAI).

Why could it possibly be that the angry souls amongst the Northern Ireland footballing fraternity appear to take heated issue only with Irish nationals switching from the IFA?

Quinn went on to say:

To help prevent further seepage from Northern Ireland ranks, O’Neill will seek a ceasefire with his Republic of Ireland counterpart, a former captain of the North.

‘I hope to sit down with Martin and get some sort of gentleman’s agreement whereby if a young boy has represented Northern Ireland at aged 17 to 21, the FAI don’t ask him to change,’ said O’Neill.

This is delusional. If Michael O’Neill does seek a meeting with Martin O’Neill, the latter O’Neill should refuse to indulge his counterpart’s fantasies. The IFA are not automatically or exclusively entitled to the services of northern-born Irish national players.

It is FIFA with whom O’Neill needs to engage if he truly seeks some change from the regulatory status quo whereby dual or multi-eligible players are permitted one switch of association. It is FIFA he needs to petition and convince instead of berating those who merely follow the rules as they stand and use them to their advantage, as is their entitlement.

The glaring hypocrisy of it all, of course, is that Michael O’Neill exploits the very same rules and uses them to the IFA’s advantage; he just does not appear willing to respect them when their effect is not in accordance with his or his association’s narrow interests.

The IFA can always attempt to propose a general rule-change at an annual FIFA congress and have the other member associations vote on it if they so desire. FIFA are unlikely to provide the IFA with the special treatment O’Neill would like (as national identity is the foundation of international teams and FIFA do not ordinarily tend to specifically tailor regulations to suit individual associations), but that is not the FAI’s problem.

It is worth remembering that when FIFA did actually make the extraordinary gesture of offering the IFA special treatment in respect of their complaints over the matter of player eligibility back in November of 2007, the IFA rejected the proposal, even though the FAI were prepared to accept it.

The exceptional proposal would have allowed the IFA to select Irish nationals born south of the border who were not British citizens and who had no legal connection to the territory of the IFA. It would have enabled, for example, the association to select individuals from the Ulster-Scots community in the southern border counties of Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan. Many people from this community culturally identify with the Northern Ireland statelet and its football team despite their birth and upbringing on the southern side of the border. Willie Hay, Basil McCrea, Maurice Devenney and Charley McAdam are just a few examples of public figures from this community.

Any future gentleman’s agreement between the two associations on the island of Ireland whereby the FAI would refuse to facilitate northern-born Irish national footballers who wished to make themselves available for selection by the FAI would contravene FIFA’s mandatory eligibility rules as they stand and would amount to a breach of individual players’ rights under those rules. Only associations sharing a common nationality may enter into an agreement, which must be ratified by FIFA.

Any gentleman’s agreement would also be a shoddy move both politically and ethically; it would be to say to northern-born Irish nationals that they were not wanted and would differentiate them from all other Irish nationals simply on account of their place of birth. Why would or should northern-born Irish nationals be treated by the FAI as second-class citizens, or even as effective non-citizens?

John Delaney, the FAI’s chief executive, has in the past claimed that the FAI don’t initiate contact with northern players. Presumably, he was referring to young players in the IFA’s set-up, but why shouldn’t the FAI approach eligible players? The association would be entirely within their rights to register an interest with any eligible player and make an inquiry as to availability if they wanted. Why should the IFA be conferred with preferential or exclusive access to or influence over young players who may also be (equally) eligible to play for the FAI?

Quinn concluded his article with another quote from O’Neill:

If a young Northern Ireland player explodes on the scene and ‘turns out to be a superstar’, O’Neill points out that ‘the FAI can get him before I cap him, they just have to stay on top of it.’

This is simply not true. For the FAI to “get him”, such a player would first have to be an Irish national and would obviously also have to actually want to play for the FAI. The FAI cannot force northern-born players to play for them. This is especially true of those northern players who do not identify as Irish nationals.

Instead of Michael O’Neill pretentiously waving his fist at the FAI (which is essentially a form of grandstanding in order to enhance his standing amongst supporters of the Northern Ireland team) and peddling falsehoods, perhaps his time and efforts would be better spent self-reflecting and working out with his own association why so many northern-born players still do not feel culturally comfortable within the ranks of the IFA. When O’Neill points his finger at the FAI, he is simply engaging in convenient deflection.

*Update as of 9:00AM on the 6th of March, 2018: Michael O’Neill’s comments appear to have been genuine and are reported by the Irish Independent as featuring in an interview with the Irish Daily Mail published this morning.

Update as of 10:00PM on the 6th of March, 2018: I have finally gotten round to reading Philip Quinn’s re-published content in the Irish Daily Mail. It features a mini-piece to complement a larger interview piece. The mini-piece is essentially a watered-down version of the more explicit and accusatory content that was published on the 4th of March before being pulled from the internet the following day.

Curiously, the particularly direct and provocative accusations of “sectarian” and “unscrupulous” recruitment on the part of the FAI have now been omitted, as has the rather churlish reference to the Dublin association “weasel[ing] away”. Is it possible that Quinn’s original piece underwent sterilisation surgery as a favour at the request or behest of a humiliated and compromised Michael O’Neill or IFA in order to purge the piece of elements – brash, tactless, impolitic and ill-advised – that have only served to discredit the Northern Ireland team’s manager? In other words, have Quinn or his senior editors colluded in helping O’Neill try to fit back on the mask that slipped off and save face?

In the longer interview piece, O’Neill also rationalises his chase of Sean Scannell and attempts to distinguish this from the FAI recruiting northern players on the basis that Scannell’s “bloodline” is from the north. In O’Neill’s opinion, this means that “[the IFA are] not taking [Scannell] off the Republic” – O’Neill places his pursuit of Derry-born Paddy McEleney in the same bracket – whilst a player switching from the IFA to the FAI is, in O’Neill’s implied opinion, being taken from the IFA by the FAI. You can he sure that O’Neill is employing here the meaning of the word “take” that refers to the act of snatching something that is not rightfully yours.

Thus, when the IFA facilitate a former FAI player moving in their (the IFA’s) direction, O’Neill appears to be suggesting that the process is somehow simply the case of a player returning to his rightful home, but when a northern player moves in the opposite direction, this process is somehow tainted or sullied by the fact that that player may not have a “bloodline” to the 26 counties.

O’Neill is very much losing his bearings here by trying to apply to reality his own biased and prejudicial preconception as to what he feels should really render a player eligible to play for an association rather than trying to look at the rules and the practical nature of Irish nationality law in a rational and objective manner.

Scannell’s father is indeed from Armagh, as mention earlier in this blog piece, but the notion of a territorial “bloodline” is irrelevant here if the purpose is to draw comparisons or contrasts. Possessing such does not make a player any more or less eligible for one particular association as long as that player satisfies the relevant eligibility criteria for another association, nor does it give the IFA some sort of exclusive claim over a player. Insofar as Scannell was eligible to play for the FAI, it does not matter how he was eligible, and insofar as he played for the FAI, his potential switch to the IFA is no different to a player who played for the IFA switching in the other direction.

As it happens, Scannell, as the son of an Irish national born on the island of Ireland is an automatic Irish national as of birthright. Paddy McEleney is also an Irish national as of birthright, having been born in Derry. As already stated in above, nationality as of birthright is as close a connection you can get to a particular country in citizenship law internationally.

In attempting to imply that the IFA should have more of a claim than the FAI over the likes of Scannell or that the likes of McEleney is rightfully the property of the IFA, once again, comes desperately close to denying or diminishing the validity of the Irish nationality of Irish nationals born in the north.

Whilst on the topic of Paddy McEleney and the notion that players are being “taken” when they switch from the IFA to the FAI but that the process of players switching from the FAI to the IFA is somehow different, Michael O’Neill had no qualms about meeting up with McEleney, who has represented the FAI at under-17 and under-19 levels, in 2012 when the FAI – or youth manager Noel King, to be specific – still had immediate plans for the player. In fact, McEleney provisionally agreed with O’Neill to switch from the FAI to the IFA and even had King later contacting him to plead with him to reconsider.

It eventually transpired that McEleney was not prepared to go through with the switch because, according to the player, he was told by an IFA official that he would have to apply for a British passport, which he was reluctant to do (as he does not identify as British), but O’Neill was nevertheless more than ready at the time to try and secure the services of a player who was in immediate demand by another association.

Of course, O’Neill contends that this is different from the FAI speaking to or facilitating players who might be in demand by the IFA because McEleney has a “bloodline” to the north. This supposedly renders more legitimate what O’Neill is happy to do, as if possession of a “bloodline” somehow trumps or negates a birthright. The purported distinction is simply self-serving fantasy.

**Update as of 01:30PM on the 7th of March, 2018: The IFA have now distanced themselves from Michael O’Neill’s comments and made clear that he expressed them in a personal capacity. The association also sought to re-emphasise their “very strong, very positive” relationship with the FAI.

Update as of 11:00PM on the 7th of March, 2018: The following tweet, which further exposes the hollowness of Michael O’Neill’s protestations, deserves to be shared widely:

So, the IFA themselves have actually been guilty in the past of the very thing of which O’Neill accused the FAI; profiling players – those playing within their very own set-up, in fact – presumably on the basis of cultural markers. The irony is rich.


  1. Neil Greene · · Reply

    I was born in the North of Ireland and am as Irish as someone from the South of Ireland. Why would I want to play for a UK entity? An entity who’s footballing support in the main despises my Irish Republican political views. Michael O’Neill is a disgrace in more ways than one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I always think overly long ramblings such as this article usually means someone is trying too hard to deflect the truth. The reality is sectarianism does exist and whilst we have spent decades accusing the north of Ireland for having a past history (long after it had made great progress to turnaround the support), what we haven’t done is look in the mirror at our own sectarianism. Whether we are burying our heads (or for the most, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the scale of our unaddressed issue), I think we should applaud what the North has achieved and get our house in order, because I for one have been ashamed at some of our own support.


    1. Well, thank you for at least taking the time to read my “overly long rambling”. 😉

      How else does one deal comprehensively with a particular topic if not by going into greater and more thorough detail though? It’s not necessarily a sign of deflection. I think that’s a rather unfair presumption for you to apply simply because I’ve chosen to write about a specific matter of interest at length, as I’m perfectly entitled to do.

      I haven’t denied that sectarianism and casual prejudices exist on our side of the political/national divide either. In fact, if you look through previous blog articles I’ve written, you’ll see that I’ve been more than willing to engage in self-reflection and critique when it comes to Irish sport, nationalism and republicanism. There is no stubborn refusal here.

      What I was arguing above, essentially, was that the FAI’s recruitment and selection of northern-born Irish nationals is not indicative of a sectarian policy on the part of the association. I think the accusation of a sectarian agenda is ludicrous, flies in the face of the evidence, and should be faced down along with the other inflammatory things Michael O’Neill said.

      Are you really contending though that the FAI have a widespread or pervasive sectarianism problem under their noses that they’re choosing to ignore? I’m not sure that would be fair to say at all, but feel free to furnish me with evidence of it if you believe it to be true.

      For what it is worth, I’m on record for acknowledging the IFA’s ‘Football For All’ programme and the efforts they have made in recent years to make Windsor Park a more welcoming place, although it would be naïve to suggest everything is perfect – imagine, for example, the reaction in the stands if a nationalist visitor to the stadium decided to bring along an Irish tricolour, which would be his or her national flag, after all – or that there are not still major outstanding issues for nationalist-background players when it comes to things like flags, the anthem and the Northern Ireland team’s annual wearing of the poppy.

      I have always said that those matters are ultimately the IFA’s business, but if the IFA profess to be inclusive of all traditions in the north, that is a standard they have set for themselves, so, whilst I have no stake in their decisions and affairs as Northern Ireland are not my team, it is only fair for outside observers to judge them by that standard.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Might help matters if Catholic players didn’t have to listen to the Windsor Park sectarian choir belting out the Billy Bhoys and their desire to wade through fenian blood.
    What happened to Neil Lennon is also conveniently forgotten about.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Seamus Mallon · · Reply

    Great article,you certainly took apart Michael Oneills argument .First time i have seen this site,looking forward to seeing more in the future.


  5. You know what you are talking about and you have cut through the cheap headline grabbing misinformed prejudice thinking that surrounds this sibject on occasions.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting points but lets be honest here, there is no smoke without fire. Are we really saying that there isn’t some truth in it? Don’t buy the denials I’m afraid, but I don’t blame them for not liking a light being shone on it


    1. Further evidence to substantiate the allegations would be most welcome, if it exists, as what Michael O’Neill offered was certainly fairly scant. What have we? An alleged approach to Paddy McNair (who isn’t even a Catholic) that never even happened?

      The senior players that O’Neill mentioned have all initiated contact with the FAI. Eunan O’Kane (who is a humanist, albeit from a Catholic upbringing) appears to be an exception. As I said in the article, when he was asked by the FAI if he would be interested in switching, he was 21, had not been featuring in IFA squads for a spell and had already been of the opinion that “[his] opportunity wasn’t going to come playing for Northern Ireland”.

      Can O’Neill’s word be relied upon anyway considering he got it so wrong when he accused the FAI of having approached the McEneff brothers? It was actually the McEneffs who got in touch with the FAI. It would appear to me that O’Neill is jumping to the suspect conclusion that, just because a northern player might have declared for the FAI, that player must have been approached by the FAI.


  7. […] team, Michael O’Neill, provoked such a considerable degree of justified criticism last week after firing allegations of sectarianism the way of the Football Association in Ireland (FAI) that he offered on Sunday last an official pre-prepared statement under the banner of the Irish […]


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