Unionist councillors in Belfast refused to back a proposal to write a letter of congratulations to the Northern Ireland and Republic football teams on their performances at Euro 2016 — because England and Wales weren’t included.
The atmosphere at Belfast City Council turned sour during a debate on a motion by Alliance’s Emmet McDonough-Brown that it writes to both the IFA and FAI to “express its admiration on behalf of all the citizens of Belfast”.
Mr McDonough-Brown was not present to propose the motion on Monday evening, and initially some councillors objected to party colleague Mervyn Jones putting it forward on his behalf, however they eventually agreed to let him proceed.
Mr Jones spoke with admiration of how well Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland supporters conducted themselves in France.
“The contribution of fans to the atmosphere of the competition, the performance of the teams and the spirit of friendship in sport was second to none within Europe,” he said.
“This council undertakes to write and express its admiration to the football associations on behalf of all the citizens of Belfast.” He reminded councillors that both sets of fans are to be recognised with an award by the city of Paris for their behaviour.
The proposal was seconded by his Alliance colleague Michael Long, who said he hoped it would not be controversial.
However, Ulster Unionist Jim Rodgers queried why the motion only covered Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland teams, and not also the England and Wales teams.
“I think people seem to forget that two other countries are part of the British Isles, namely Wales and England, who did exceptionally well, especially Wales,” he said.
“Basically, what we are asking for is for the first paragraph to be changed and we are adding in a second one.
“The first paragraph would read ‘... this council recognises and celebrates the achievement of Northern Ireland, Wales, England and the Republic of Ireland in qualifying for and reaching the knock out stages of the 2016 UEFA European Championship’.”
Declan Boyle of the SDLP responded: “To congratulate the English team on a performance like that? You must be joking.”
The PUP’s Billy Hutchinson said success for England would have been reaching the semi-finals.
Sinn Fein’s Arder Carson said: “Tonight is about the two Irish teams, let’s just write to them and congratulate them.”
Mr Jones concluded: “To congratulate England would be a joke.”
The UUP amendment was voted down 30 votes to 16.
Mr McDonough-Brown’s original motion was passed.
In January there had been a similar row when Mr Boyle proposed the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland teams be invited to the City Hall to congratulate them on qualifying for Euro 2016.
Unionists opposed the motion but it was passed with the support of the SDLP, Sinn Fein and Alliance.
Mr Boyle said the motion was still on the books, however admitted a joint reception was unlikely to happen any time soon because all the players were currently on holiday and will shortly be returning to their clubs ahead of the new season.
The Northern Ireland football team is to be given the freedom of the borough where coach Michael O’Neill grew up after reaching the knock-out stage of the Euro 2016 finals.
The decision by Mid & East Antrim Borough Council to bestow the honour on the team was made in Ballymena — home town of both O’Neill and captain Steven Davis.
Traditional Unionist Voice councillor Stewart McDonald said: “It was great to see everyone support this motion.”
The European finals in France marked Northern Ireland’s return to major international qualification after 30 years in the doldrums.
Mr McDonald said: “I ask this council and every member on it to pay tribute to the Green and White Army of Northern Ireland for their success.”
And the TUV man added: “To bestow upon them the freedom of the borough is the most fitting way to do it.”