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Irish FA must keep fighting Fifa over poppy fine, says Sport Minister Givan

By Paul Ferguson and Laure James

Irish FA chiefs will demand to know from Fifa why they have been hit with a fine of almost £12,000 for marking Armistice Day - which offers them no opportunity of appeal.

Northern Ireland fans formed a poppy mosaic in the Kop stand before kick-off while the players wore black armbands in their World Cup qualifying win over Azerbaijan on November 11.

England, Scotland and Wales were also slapped with penalties for displaying poppies, which are regarded as political symbols under Fifa's jurisdiction, during last month's games. However, due to their fines being over the appeals threshold, those associations may challenge the decision by the three-man disciplinary panel.

The IFA will hold a board meeting tomorrow night at Windsor Park to discuss the issue and what legal rights they may have with regards to challenging the amount of the fine.

Communities Minister Paul Givan, whose brief includes sport, insists Fifa are "out of touch" when it comes to the poppy and the fine is an "insult" to those who sacrificed their lives to protect our freedom

The DUP MLA states: "From a Northern Ireland point of view, the poppy has been subject to much debate, yet the Equality Commission does not recognise it as a political symbol, so for me it demonstrates how out of touch Fifa are when it comes to dealing with this issue.

"They have to have ways of dealing with symbols which are visibly political, or contentious, but if they think the poppy is one of them, alarm bells should be ringing."

The English FA were handed the biggest fine of the Home Nations, £35,311, after their players, along with their rivals from Scotland, wore poppies on their shirts during the game at Wembley on November 11. But the Scottish FA have been ordered to pay the same as the Football Association of Wales, £15,694 - meaning Northern Ireland's punishment is the lightest.

The FA have already announced they plan to appeal and Mr Givan is frustrated the Irish FA will not be allowed to do the same.

He adds: "I know there is an ongoing battle with how England feels in terms of how Fifa treats it, but all home nations have been affected this time.

"The IFA have taken a different approach to carrying out an Act of Remembrance (not wearing poppies on shirts), and how this differs seems to have affected the fine which has been levied. That would need to be explained in much more detail for people to understand it.

"It doesn't seem fair that you have to breach a certain threshold before you can challenge the punishment. There is an inherent unfairness there.

"The FAI were fined for wearing Easter lilies on their shirts, and were fined less. They had an emblem on their jerseys, and the Northern Ireland players did not, however the FAI have been given a lesser fine than which the IFA have to deal with.

"When it comes to dealing with this in the future, the home nations will be continually fined when they play during acts of remembrance observed throughout the country, and there will be an ongoing collision with Fifa.

"That politicises the sport which is ultimately against Fifa's objective, so their handling of this will be counter-productive to achieving what they set out to do."

Gary McAllister, chair of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, has said IFA bosses should make an immediate approach to Fifa for answers.

"It definitely should not be the end of the matter," says McAllister, who believes the Association need to raise the issue at the rule-making International Football Association Board's next rendezvous, for the sake of clarification, as much as principle.

"The IFA should seek to raise it at the next opportunity, and I should imagine the IFAB meeting in March is as good a chance as any.

"There has been a precedent set by Fifa, which needs to be recognised. In 2011 they gave permission to the Scottish FA to wear black armbands, and allowed the same to England in a friendly against Spain, meaning they need to clarify what they will and will not allow.

"The IFA didn't print the poppy on shirts, they accepted that would not be permitted, and instead marked Remembrance Day in a very dignified and sensitive way."

The IFA said yesterday they were "disappointed", adding they "will take further legal advice before deciding on a future course of action." But the Association will wait until after tomorrow's meeting before making further comment.

McAllister is adamant fans will regard Fifa's treatment as heavy-handed, while the governing body will insist they are following the letter of their regulations.

"The supporters I've spoken to believed the display before the match was tastefully and respectfully done," he adds. "Now the IFA need to ensure there is never a repeat of this. There is a real need for Fifa to clarify their position, and what they expect of associations.

"Essentially, it should not be a case-closed situation. It's very disappointing to hear of the fine, but we cannot be in these circumstances again."

Claudio Sulser, chair of the Fifa Disciplinary Committee, said their position is quite clear. "With these decisions, it is not our intention to judge or question specific commemorations as we fully respect the significance of such moments in the respective countries, each one of them with its own history and background.

"However, keeping in mind that the rules need to be applied in a neutral and fair manner across Fifa's 211 member associations, the display, among others, of any political or religious symbols is strictly prohibited."

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