Southern comforts

Footballing tensions in Ireland have worsened recently over several cases of defection and perceived poaching, reports Aaron Rogan

Gerry Armstrong’s goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup finals will live long in the memories of Northern Ireland supporters. His new role within the Irish Football Association (IFA) could be vital for the future success of the national team. Over the last few years, the south’s Football Association of Ireland (FAI) has begun selecting an increasing number of northern-born and capped players to represent the Republic. Armstrong has been appointed as “elite player mentor” to persuade younger players to stay within the north’s set up.

During the Carling Nations Cup last May a match with the Republic saw a threadbare side succumb to a 5-0 defeat in front of a paltry crowd of 15,000. Though the competition failed to catch the imagination of the public, the crowd was lower than anticipated as supporters refused to make the trip south. This was due in part to draconian travel restrictions put in place by the IFA but also to a barely publicised boycott by northern supporters’ groups.

The boycott was triggered by the selection by the Republic of Everton’s Shane Duffy and Stoke’s Marc Wilson who had both represented the north at age-group level. This summer James McClean, who played for the Under-21s, defected to the Republic in a particularly galling manner. Originally the Derry City player expressed relief at a call-up by the north for a competitive match with the Faroe Islands after being overlooked previously. He later said: “It’s always been my dream to play for the Republic and hopefully that will become a reality now that I’m going to be Sunderland player.” A week before the Faroes fixture McClean declared for the Republic.

Northern fans feel that the opportunistic approach taken by the FAI is sapping the north of its talent and resources – most players are only called upon by the Republic after securing contracts with Premier League clubs, having been nurtured by the IFA at youth level.

On a wider scale, the recent developments in eligibility have served to entrench further the political divisions in Irish football. Traditionally the north has drawn support mainly from unionists while the predominantly Catholic nationalists have preferred to follow the fortunes of the Republic. Yet many Catholics, such as Armstrong, have represented the country in international competition. While other sports such as rugby and hockey have offered the opportunity for the communities to overcome their differences by supporting Ireland (with no prefix), football has remained deeply political.

Sectarianism is still prevalent in the Irish League and at international level Windsor Park has always had a reputation of hostility towards Catholic players. Although a lot has been done to discourage sectarianism the hangover of the Troubles is still palpable. It is less than a decade since Neil Lennon quit international football after he and his family received numerous death threats and were believed to be genuine targets of the Loyalist Volunteer Force. This year, another northern player who plays for Celtic, Paddy McCourt, received death threats along with Lennon. Though these are isolated incidents, Northern Irish football for many remains an expression of loyalism.

Duffy, McClean and Wilson have all said that they are more comfortable playing for the Republic as it is the country they supported growing up, and they are likely to be the first of many northern players who choose to represent it. The complexities of nationality in the north mean that a minority of those born there regard themselves as purely Irish. FIFA statutes do not inhibit their decision to represent the Republic, even without geographic or familial ties.

The IFA has taken several cases against its southern counterpart to the Court of Arbitration for Sport claiming that players who have been capped by the north should not be allowed to switch allegiances. They have all been rejected and even with Armstrong’s appointment the Republic will appear a more attractive option for football and political reasons.

Though it is clear that the current situation is damaging northern football and, moreover, an opportunity to move towards a more co-operative society is being lost, it seems that the FAI will continue to benefit from the playing talents of the whole island.

From WSC 297 November 2011