Ireland’s foreign minister has broached a tricky subject: if one team can represent the island in rugby, why not in football? Paul Doyle reports on the backlash, or lack of one, from some quarters

The mainly Nationalist fans of Cliftonville came up with a new chant a few years ago to mark the beginning of the Northern Irish peace process. Reworking the words of the popular old terrace ditty “You’re going to get your fucking heads kicked in”, they taunted the supporters of traditionally Unionist-backed teams such as Linfield and Glentoran with triumphant cries of “Cross-border bodies with executive powers”. The creation of such bodies was part of the Good Friday Agreement and a move that Nationalists hope will eventually lead to a united Ireland, which, of course, is a scenario Unionists dread.

Dermot Ahern, the Irish minister for foreign affairs, gave his own version of that chant in January when he took to his feet at the annual football writers’ dinner and declared that the time had come to merge the associations of Northern Ireland (the IFA) and the Republic (the FAI) with a view to creating an all-Ireland league and, by extension, a single national team. His logic was simple: if it works in rugby, hockey and more than 20 other sports, why should ­football remain an exception?

The usual response to that question is this: because football fans are different – which is a euphemistic way of saying that they’re more tribal and violent and therefore less likely to embrace compromise. That’s partially true, as is clear from the abuse the Republic’s players got the last time they visited Windsor Park and the booing dished out by some Lansdowne Road regulars to any visiting player who has ever been on the books of Rangers; sectarianism is rarely expressed by fans of other sports.

But it is also true that the situation has been improving for the best part of a decade, since well before the introduction of the cross-border Setanta Sports Cup in 2005. In the late 1990s, teams such as Linfield and Portadown began to recruit players from the south regularly, such as Pat ­Fenlon, Vinny Arkins and ­Dessie “The Dundalk Hawk” Gorman, a trio who would all ­become ­legends for their new clubs. Teams also started criss-crossing the border for ­pre-season friendlies.

The Setanta Cup has taken these good relations further – the perfect demonstration of this coming in its very first edition, when Linfield agreed to travel to Derry City’s Brandywell Stadium for the first time in 23 years.

Derry City, of course, are a Northern Irish team who play in the Republic’s league, having been forced to leave the Northern Irish one in 1972 because Linfield and other teams with large Unionist support claimed it was dangerous for them to play in Derry (which was often true, as Ballymena United, for example, discovered when their team bus was attacked and burnt out, but Unionist bastions such as Linfield’s Windsor Park were scarcely any safer for visiting ­Nationalist fans).

Perhaps more important than the fact that the Setanta Cup has attracted decent-sized, reasonably behaved crowds is that it has demanded the co-operation of the IFA and FAI, who had hardly been on speaking terms since southerners split from the former to create the latter in 1921. After all, an all-Ireland league can’t happen without the agreement of the associations. Unfortunately for Ahern, Ulster says no to his plan, an angry IFA president Jim Boyce reacting to it by saying, somewhat confusingly, that he was “totally shocked but not surprised” by the minister’s attempt to drag politics into sport.

By contrast, Derry City chief executive Jim Roddy said political implications were irrelevant and that Ahern’s call should be heeded for economic and sporting purposes. That, of course, is easy for a Nationalist to say. But Roddy’s reasoning is sound. “We need to do the right thing for Irish football,” he said. “There are 16 senior clubs in Northern Ireland and 22 in the Eircom League, which is too many on an island of this size. If we streamline that then the quality of the product on offer becomes better.”

The FAI, meanwhile, neither condoned nor condemned Ahern’s appeal. It merely noted that “there is already a very high degree of positive cooperation between us” thanks to the Setanta Cup and the European Under-21 Championship which Ireland – north and south – will host in 2011. It could be that the FAI want to inch towards unification but don’t want to alarm their northern counterparts by openly backing a notion that many in the IFA consider imperialist. Or, even more likely, it could be that neither association wants an ­all‑Ireland team because that would mean just one association – and therefore fewer jobs for the suits.

From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month

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