Northern Ireland Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has backed the stance of Londonderry-born footballer James McClean to play for the Republic of Ireland and not the country of his birth.
Sunderland winger McClean, 23, angered Northern Ireland followers earlier this year by becoming the latest in a growing line of players to go south rather than stay with his native north, despite playing in under age teams for the latter when he was with Derry City.
It was a story that made front page news and a decision that angered Northern Ireland followers. McClean even received death threats on Twitter. He hit back at critical supporters on his social network site before it was closed down.
“I think it is regrettable that it caused so much media attention,” said Ni Chuilin.
“At the end of the day my position on this remains very clear – I would much prefer an all Ireland team but that's a matter for the IFA and FAI. James or any other soccer player should be allowed to play for whoever they want. Those are the Fifa rules.”
Asked if McClean helped the volatile situation by hitting back at fans, she said: “I'm not going to comment on that but I'm sure he will learn from it and others will too. The point that he and his family have made is that he chose the team he wished to play for. I respect that choice.”
The subject of players born, bred and coached in Northern Ireland deciding to declare for the Republic remains a hot topic, and has been mentioned at Stormont many times.
When pressed if anything could be done in order to stop the flow south, the minister made her position clear.
“I won't be rolling back on the Good Friday Agreement commitment. If anything I'll be trying to ensure that it is honoured as well as applying the Fifa rules,” she insisted.
“The question we need to be asking is what does the Northern Ireland team need to do to make sure it is the team that everybody wants to play for and at the minute there is still a reluctance within nationalist com
munities to play for the Northern Ireland team because of the association to things they wouldn't normally identify with.”
It does not take a brain surgeon to work out she is referring there to the national anthem of God Save The Queen which is played before every Northern Ireland international.
She adds: “I also know that there are young men who just want to win international caps and it is not a political decision for them and they will play with whoever they are most comfortable with and that's ok as well, but this theory that young people from here should play for the North of Ireland team regardless isn't a realistic |proposition.
“I don't know if that will change. I think we need to have a mature discussion around it and to see how everyone including political leaders can make the choices easier without making players feel guilty or pigeon holing them because of the choices they make either way.”