Belfast Telegraph

It's time to foster friendship in football for a better future

The FAI shouldn't encourage Northern Ireland footballers to switch their affiliation, writes Trevor Ringland

I suppose that Chris Donnelly and other republicans must in some way envy me. As a unionist, not only did I represent all the people of Ireland, but I have it on good authority that when I scored a try against England in the early 1980s, I actually united its people, as both wings of the Maze prison cheered.

When Lord Justice Gibson and his wife were brutally murdered in 1987 and my three close friends also nearly blown to bits by those who argued that they were trying to unite the people of Ireland, two of my friends continued to play for Ireland, but unfortunately the third's international career was cut short by his injuries.

I also recall, as a youngster, aspiring to be Pat Jennings, if I was in goal, or George Best, if playing in the outfield.

Even England has not had two players who surely make the all-time greatest World XI.

In the 1980s, when Northern Ireland was tearing itself apart, its people were united in support of big Pat, Gerry Armstrong, Martin O'Neill, Billy Hamilton and the rest as they did us so proud in their performances in two World Cups.

There is no doubt that sport has the ability to cross barriers, build friendships and show a different way, through inclusion, to those who simply promoted division for what now seems to have been purely selfish reasons.

Gestures such as that of Danny Murphy of the Ulster GAA stating that, when a county plays a match, its players are representing all that county's people, resonates in a positive way with those who are open to such and challenges those who are not.

That is probably why I am so disappointed in some nationalists and republicans who do not fully recognise the efforts of the IFA to challenge those twin cancers, sectarianism and racism (in an anti-British/Irish sense) that have done so much damage to the fabric of our society.

Things are not perfect, but massive strides have been made to make Windsor Park more inclusive since that terrible 'night in November' so many years ago. It is also a pity that players opt to play for a different country instead of that in which they were born and with those with whom they share that part of this world.

It highlights that there are still too many on both sides of this community who reject the concept of a united people of Ireland/Northern Ireland as envisaged under the 1998 Agreement.

The conflict happened here because there were two flawed ideologies of exclusive Irishness and Britishness to the fore.

The future has to be something different if we are not to repeat the past.

As a unionist, I will promote a Northern Ireland for all, inside the United Kingdom and with good relations with the rest of the people on this island.

Is it really too little to ask that, in return, nationalists and republicans will make Northern Ireland work to prove that if they were ever to achieve their ambition of a united Ireland, it would be truly inclusive of those from the British tradition?

Those of us committed to tackling sectarianism and racism in the game want all that are eligible to play for Northern Ireland to do so.

There should be a gentleman's agreement with the FAI not to encourage players in whom the IFA has invested to change affiliation at senior level. Otherwise we end up damaging relations on this island and in an unproductive legal battle at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

As to those from a nationalist/republican background who opt to play for Northern Ireland: your gesture of friendship, tolerance and respect is greatly appreciated by those from a unionist background and surely gives us all hope for the future.

After all, friendship works and surely it should be the dynamic on this island as we look to build a better and shared future for us all.

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