Why are Northern Irish footballers declaring for the Republic? A TD wants to open talks (Opinion, TheJournal.ie)

Opinion piece by Frank Feighan TD, Co-Chair of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which appeared in TheJournal.ie on 20 February 2015.

IN 1945, GEORGE Orwell declared that serious sport was war minus the shooting. However, in the intervening 70 years, we have seen sport play an indelible role in reconciliation in divided societies, not least at the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final in South Africa where a beaming Nelson Mandela inspired the home side to a famous victory.

In Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement makes clear that in our endeavours to build a real and lasting peace, we must strive in every practical way towards reconciliation. And the three largest sporting organisations in Northern Ireland have made steady progress in breaking down sectarian barriers and fostering cross-community spirit.

The success of the Ulster rugby team has been cheered on enthusiastically by supporters of both traditions from Ravenhill’s gleaming new stands. Unionist leaders have been warmly welcomed to a number of GAA grounds for prominent matches. Meanwhile, the Irish Football Association (IFA) has made huge strides through its visionary Football for All campaign that has created a more inclusive environment for their sport.

So it is timely that the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which I have the privilege of co- chairing with Westminster MP Laurence Robertson, examines the role of sport in fostering community spirit and cohesion. Next Monday (23 February) GAA President Liam O’Neill, former rugby internationals Trevor Ringland and Hugo MacNeill, and IFA and FAI representatives will address parliamentarians from across these islands on the power of sport in reconciliation.

Part of this landmark 50th plenary meeting takes place in Croke Park, where the reception afforded to the English rugby team in 2007 embodied the sea change in relations between the peoples of our islands. And I am deeply proud that the opening of this bastion of Irish nationalism was spearheaded by Kilmore club members in my own county of Roscommon, who originally formulated the motion to modify Rule 42.

– Huge strides –

Around that time, there was a similar gesture made in South Belfast, which may have received fewer column inches but was no less momentous. The camogie team from St Mary’s College, struggling to find an appropriate floodlit ground in which to train for an upcoming final, were granted generous access by their neighbours at Linfield FC to their training facilities.

And since then, the broader Northern Ireland football community have made huge strides in challenging sectarian songs, and making Windsor Park a much warmer house for those from the nationalist tradition.

So they, and the IFA, have been understandably frustrated at the trend in players who represented Northern Ireland at youth level declaring for the Republic.

It places an obvious financial burden on a relatively small football association, such as the IFA, to invest hugely in youth development squads only for players to declare for another senior squad.

But more critically, it has created a very real danger that both international football teams on the island might come to represent almost exclusively Nationalist and Unionist communities.

– Common ground –

While the Good Friday Agreement entitles those born in Northern Ireland to dual citizenship, the trend in players from north of the border declaring for the Republic deserves careful consideration.

The tremendous Northern Ireland squads, with a number of Catholics leading the charge, qualified for successive World Cups in 1982 and 1986. They provided hope of brighter days during a difficult period of the Troubles and, with peace now relatively secure, the FAI and football community south of the border must be sensitive to the concerns of their counterparts in Belfast.

To coin another Orwellian phrase, happiness can exist in acceptance. Like many other seemingly intractable problems between the two traditions of this island, I believe meaningful dialogue can overcome these challenges.

Calls from Unionist voices for FIFA and the British and Irish Government to intervene on this issue have received little response. But I do believe exploratory talks between the FAI and IFA on forging some common ground on this area should take place.

The FAI and IFA already work closely and collaboratively, not least in delivering the Setanta Sports Cup, the first cross-border football competition since the 1980s. It is in the interests of the wider football communities, North and South, that both associations build on these existing bonds to secure workable, long-term and fair protocols on this issue.

Frank Feighan is a TD for Roscommon-South Leitrim and co-Chair of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly. The 50th BIPA Plenary Session is being webcast live over the course of Monday and Tuesday at www.britishirish.org.