Belfast Telegraph

Empathy, not enforcement is what’s needed in Irish soccer

The IFA must accept that it can’t coerce nationalists into supporting the Northern Ireland football team, writes Chris Donnelly

The deep divisions among the football fraternity in Ireland have come to prominence again with last week's news that Derry-born Shane Duffy has declared for the Republic of Ireland.

It has to be disappointing for any manager, coach or supporter when players opt to play for another team.

But the manner in which the Irish FA and their rabid support base have once again plunged with both feet into this political minefield is not only disappointing, but foolhardy and counter-productive.

I was part of a Sinn Fein delegation which met with Howard Wells and other senior IFA officials when they launched their previous ill-advised campaign to prevent northerners from representing the Republic. Then, as now, it appeared obvious that Windsor Avenue officials were utterly ignorant as to the depth of anger and resentment generated within the nationalist community due to the efforts by the association to deny what had been guaranteed through the Good Friday Agreement - namely the right to Irish citizenship on the same basis as all other citizens born anywhere in Ireland.

The language employed by those sympathetic to the IFA campaign displays a sweeping disregard for the sensitivities of their neighbours.

The common theme is that northern kids opting to play for the Republic's team are being poached, pressurised or enticed from outside influences. One commentator on the Northern Ireland supporters' Our Wee Country website put it perfectly when he asked for "a definitive list of what's been stolen from us".

By depicting the issue as a north v south affair, they miss the crucial point that the initiative is not southern-led, but rather one being driven from within the northern nationalist community.

It isn't a loophole that permits Irish-born citizens here to represent the Republic's team. It is an entitlement which FIFA has already affirmed a year ago.

Complaining that FIFA's Irish judgment is a breach of the organisation's statutes is a highly dubious strategy, not least because the Northern Ireland team owes its current existence to the most notable exception of FIFA statutes - the presence of four international teams for one sovereign state, the United Kingdom.

Charting the history of the Republic's footballing ascent is important as it provides an explanation as to why Northern Ireland team officials and fans are spitting in the wind when they bemoan the absence of active support from within the nationalist community for their team.

The dramatic rise of the Green Army under Jack Charlton captured the mood of an Irish people experiencing a period of great upheaval.

The Republic's football triumphs under Charlton coincided with referenda over abortion and divorce and the landmark election of Mary Robinson to the presidency.

Both signalled the turning of a corner and, critically, came at a time when the Celtic Tiger was just beginning to roar and peace in the north was dropping slowly.

The team became representative of a new, forward-looking and inclusive nationalism. Northern nationalists were swept along on the tidal wave of support for the Boys in Green, feeling at ease supporting a team projecting a progressive and dynamic image of Ireland - a decision made all the easier when contrasted with what was on offer at Windsor Park during those dark days.

Since then, the Irish FA has been rightly commended for efforts to grapple the sectarian element at Windsor Park. But that should not be interpreted as a green light to seek to coerce nationalists into supporting and representing Northern Ireland.

Twelve years ago, the Belfast Telegraph advocated an all-Ireland football team. Those desiring of such a development, to emulate the successes of our rugby fraternity, know that such an outcome will only transpire through discussion and persuasion - not coercion.

Similarly, if the Irish FA want people to feel comfortable representing and supporting a Northern Ireland entity, then they have to consider how to make it a more desirable option for those they seek to recruit.

Until that day, what is required is an appreciation by football's local administrators and fans that they can not lay claim to the identity of their neighbours and try to determine for them which flag and anthem to stand for on the international stage.

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