Belfast Telegraph

What can we sing when we are winning?

The Northern Ireland manager has pledged to attract more Catholics. But first there is the question of the anthem, says Robin Wilson

In Northern Ireland, the question of what foot you kick with can often be sensitive. And football and politics can never be entirely separated.

The new Northern Ireland manager, Michael O'Neill, comes to the job at a challenging time, but with a lot of goodwill from the football family.

The challenges for him - and for his employers the Irish Football Association (IFA) - will come not only on the pitch, but they will affect performance on it.

The first of these challenges, in a sense, is the pitch. By now, we might have been observing a shiny new stadium arising on the old Maze prison site.

What a great symbol that would have been of the new Northern Ireland: the Stadium of Reconciliation, as it might have been named, embodying the transition from a violent, intolerant past to a shared future.

The IFA, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Irish Rugby Football Union had all endorsed the Maze stadium plan. There were genuine reservations about the viability of out-of-town stadia for some fans and there were technical challenges in ensuring one stadium could accommodate the different pitch sizes for the three codes.

But, in the end, it came down to politics - bad politics. Sinn Fein insisted that the site include a Robben Island-style museum, to legitimise the IRA's campaign of nationalistic violence by associating it with the democratic struggle of the African National Congress (for which violence had been a last resort). The DUP, meanwhile, would have nothing to do with a "shrine to terrorism" and so the plan was lost.

Instead, more than £100m is to be very inefficiently spent upgrading Windsor Park, Casement Park and Ravenhill. And that leaves the IFA with a problem not of its own making - as well as 11 out of 12 premier clubs unhappy.

Since 2000, the association has run a highly successful 'Football for All' campaign against intolerance in the sport. It has been a model for how Northern Ireland's sectarian divisions should be addressed on the ground by its much less courageous politicians.

The campaign has made Windsor Park - in spite of its name, the history of Linfield as a Protestant-dominated club, the playing of God Save The Queen at internationals and the flag-bedecked Village area - a less-unwelcoming place for Catholics. The IFA's community relations department and the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs have moved mountains to transform the atmosphere there.

And there are moves afoot to ensure that the contract between the association and Linfield for international games allows for a more level financial playing-field, not putting other clubs at such a significant disadvantage.

But the concern is that a growing number of young Catholic players, like James McClean (below), have been exercising their right under the Belfast Agreement to opt to play for the Republic of Ireland, rather than Northern Ireland, at senior level.

Most Catholic youngsters, like their Protestant counterparts, grow up wanting to support Northern Ireland, as we know from an opinion survey of children born in the year of the second IRA ceasefire of 1997 by the time they were 10.

But the anthem, which is something at least the IFA can control, is a key barrier to inclusion. And the really odd thing about it is that its replacement by a song with a regional resonance would make Northern Ireland more, rather than less, like other UK regions and nations.

For, of course, apart from Northern Ireland, outside of England only little Lichtenstein - the smallest of footballing minnows - plays God Save the Queen before international games.

Hampden Park reverberates to Flower of Scotland, while the Millennium Stadium resounds to the Welsh anthem.

So why should Northern Ireland play the anthem of a competitor team?

This issue only demonstrates the bizarre illogic to which Northern Ireland's sectarian blinkers can lead. There would, of course, be some who could only see in change a concession to the 'other side' - doubtless the same small group which also wants to set Northern Ireland apart by interjecting 'No Surrender' when God Save The Queen is played at Windsor Park.

If that is 'unionism', it is a unionism that leaves actually existing English people scratching their heads in disbelief.

A decision by the IFA to commission a modern and inspiring alternative to God Save The Queen for Northern Ireland internationals - that excludes Danny Boy and anything by Phil Coulter - would be a huge and generous gesture. It would send a signal, loud and clear, that the Northern Ireland team is a neutral team which all can identify with and anyone can be proud to play for; that it wants to recapture past glories.

It would also allow the association to put the Football Association of Ireland under pressure to stop poaching players who come on to its radar through playing for Northern Ireland at youth level.

A simple resolution of the eligibility issue would be a gentleman's agreement between the two associations that a decision to play at junior level for either could not be reversed on graduation to the senior game.

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