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Row over Belfast reception for Republic and Northern Ireland Euro 2016 football teams

By Suzanne Breen

A storm is brewing over plans for a historic joint reception for the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland football teams, it can be revealed.

An SDLP motion is to go before Belfast City Council next week proposing the two teams are honoured at a groundbreaking City Hall event.

However, Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers questioned the motives behind the proposal and said he would prefer "a reception for the British Isles teams which would include England and Wales". It is the first time in football history that both teams have qualified at the same time and under managers who are both from Northern Ireland.

The motion is being proposed by the SDLP's Declan Boyle, who said it was "a genuine and long-overdue attempt at inclusiveness and reconciliation".

He added: "I'd be surprised if anybody could vote against it."

Councillor Boyle's motion, which will be debated next Tuesday night, states: "This council wishes to acknowledge the success of both football teams from this island and wishes them every success in the European Championships in France next summer.

"In light of this unique situation, where both teams have achieved this international success and brought happiness to their supporters throughout the whole of Ireland regardless of football affiliation or geography, I move that a joint dinner be hosted for both teams."

The motion continues: "In light of recent tragic events in Paris, we need to show that through sport we can rise above conflict and unify people."

Mr Rodgers said that the UUP group would have to discuss the issue before deciding how to vote.

"I fear the SDLP is playing politics with sport and I don't like that," he said.

"We've already had a finger buffet and drinks' reception at City Hall for the Northern Ireland team. We have to be very cautious about holding these dinners because they cost a lot of money.

"But if this is the road we are going down, then we must invite the English and Welsh teams as well. Sadly, we can't include Scotland as they didn't qualify. But it should be celebrating the success of the British Isles teams."

Mr Rodgers also noted Dublin City Council wasn't holding a reception.

Mr Boyle denied the SDLP was playing politics with sport. "That's exactly what we're not doing," he said. "The reality is that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland support one of the two teams.

"You just don't see local people going to the pub in England or Wales jerseys. Michael O'Neill and Martin O'Neill were born within a few dozen miles of each other in Northern Ireland.

"The Republic has Northern Ireland players in its ranks. We should be celebrating all this. Everybody talks about shared space, well having a joint reception for both teams would show that Belfast City Hall is open to everybody. It would be a great advertisement to the world."

DUP councillor Brian Kingston said his party was unlikely to support the motion. "I welcome the success of four teams from the British Isles qualifying but it would be inappropriate to hold a joint reception for the Northern Ireland squad and a team from another country.

"People from Northern Ireland can support whatever team they choose, but we encourage them to support Northern Ireland and most of them do. Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland team is our national team. We have already hosted a very enjoyable reception for them at City Hall."

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