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Civic invite a sporting gesture

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 24/11/2015

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill

Of course it is easy to raise objections or throw in the odd red herring when it comes to making a ground-breaking gesture in Northern Ireland. Belfast City Hall has a long history of polar politics and it seems inevitable that there will be objections to an SDLP proposal to invite both the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland football teams to a dinner in this civic institution.

The qualification of both teams for the European Championship finals in France next year - and the fact that both teams are managed by Northern Ireland men - gives the city fathers a unique opportunity to show themselves a cut above mere parish pump politics.

Martin O'Neill, manager of the Republic, and Michael O'Neill, manager of Northern Ireland, have both given distinguished service as players to the Northern Ireland international team and have brought further honour to the province by steering their respective teams to the Euro finals.

It is a pity that Ulster Unionist Jim Rodgers, himself an avid football fan, cannot give the proposal his full-hearted backing.

His suggestion that he would like to see England and Wales invited as well is nonsense. Hardly anyone in Northern Ireland supports either of those teams, but there are significant numbers of fans of the Republic's team in the province.

He is on slightly stronger ground when he points out that a reception has already been held for the Northern Ireland team, and that civic dinners are expensive. Mr Rodgers may even have a point that the SDLP is playing a bit of political football, but he might also ponder that when it comes to political football, why is it usually the unionists who score the own-goals?

In any case, we recently saw politics play a big role in football when England and France played a friendly match after the atrocities in Paris. Many lauded the English FA and fans for their support for the French team and their show of solidarity with the still horrified French people.

Soccer is one of the few sports that does not have an all-Ireland team. That both sides have qualified for the finals of the second biggest international tournament is a remarkable achievement and one that should be acknowledged.

It is gestures like that which can transform relationships. Snubs always hurt.

Belfast Telegraph

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