Ex-IFA Boyce weighs into Northern Ireland and Republic football teams reception row
Politicians have been told to butt out of sport after a proposal to host a joint reception for the Northern Ireland and Republic football teams sparked a row in Belfast City Council.
Former IFA president Jim Boyce was speaking after a war of words broke out between unionists and nationalists over an SDLP proposal to bring both teams together for an event recognising the historic achievement of both qualifying for the European Championships next year.
It is the first time that both teams have qualified at the same time and under managers who are both from Northern Ireland.
SDLP councillor Declan Boyle said it was "a genuine and long-overdue attempt at inclusiveness and reconciliation". He will make his proposal to the council's December meeting next week.
But already unionists have struck out against it.
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers questioned the motives behind the proposal and said he would prefer "a reception for the British Isles teams which would include England and Wales".
"I fear the SDLP is playing politics with sport and I don't like that," he said.
DUP councillor Brian Kingston said his party was unlikely to support the motion. "I welcome the success of four teams from the British Isles qualifying but it would be inappropriate to hold a joint reception for the Northern Ireland squad and a team from another country," he said.
Mr Boyle denied the SDLP was playing politics with sport. "That's exactly what we're not doing," he said. "The reality is that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland support one of the two teams."
Two legends of Northern Ireland football have now spoken out criticising the row.
Jim Boyce, a former Irish Football Association president and Fifa vice-president, said politicians should keep out of sport.
"I have tried consistently to stop politicians from making comments about sport because, sadly, when some of them open their mouths the wrong thing comes out," he said.
"It is a great achievement by both countries to reach the finals of the Euros. If someone wants to honour the achievements of people in sport, then surely people should put aside their political differences, whatever they may be.
"Don't forget that Martin O'Neill, one of the best players we've ever had in Northern Ireland, is manager of the Republic."
Meanwhile, Gerry Armstrong applauded the proposed joint reception and expressed dismay at the political row.
"I think it's a great idea and whoever came up with it should be applauded," he said.
"Unfortunately politics in Northern Ireland tends to get in the way. Politics and sport never mix. We proved that in 1982. We brought the two communities together through football and that's the way it will be come next summer."
A spokesman for the FAI said it had not received an invitation from the council, and so could not comment on the matter.