Tuesday, 5 January 2016

City Hall football reception is a cynical, political stunt

The focus should be on the achievements on Michael O'Neill and his team.
This evening Belfast City Council will vote on a motion proposing to invite both the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland football teams to a civic reception at the City Hall.  The joint event is a mischievous idea, conceived by SDLP councillor, Declan Boyle, which masquerades as an attempt to encourage reconciliation, but actually undermines efforts to ensure our national football team remains an inclusive, cross-community organisation, representing everyone here.

Northern Ireland’s footballers and their committed supporters, the Green and White Army, can look forward to 2016 with enormous optimism.  Under the leadership of Michael O’Neill, our team last year qualified for a major championship for the first time since 1986, topping its group in the process.  In June the squad travels to France to play Poland, the Ukraine and world champions Germany, in the European Championships - a month long celebration of the continent’s elite, dubbed ‘Le Rendezvous’.

The Irish Football Association (IFA), which organises football here, immediately launched a huge logistical organisation, to ensure that players, officials and thousands of fans have a great experience next summer.  Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland team, governed by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), eventually qualified for the competition too, finishing third in its group and winning a two leg play-off against Bosnia. 

In theory the idea of celebrating both teams’ achievements through a reception may seem harmless, particularly because Ireland’s two international sides have never before qualified for a major tournament at the same time.  The Republic is managed by Kilrea native, Martin O’Neill, who previously captained Northern Ireland at the 1982 World Cup, which means two men from our tiny country are in charge of Euro 2016 finalists.  However, the idea of staging such an event at City Hall in Belfast is freighted with political significance, as the SDLP knows very well. 

The IFA and FAI became engaged in a long dispute, after the Republic’s governing association decided to exploit an obscure FIFA regulation and persuade young Catholic players from Northern Ireland’s youth system to defect to the rival Irish team.  The two organisations even clashed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland, which affirmed the FAI’s interpretation of the rules, but acknowledged that their application allowed an “unfair ‘one-way situation’” to arise.

FIFA’s statutes and the CAS ruling both made it clear that the players’ eligibility rested on their entitlement to citizenship of the Republic of Ireland, but politicians distorted the arguments to imply that the irrelevant (in this context) Good Friday Agreement created a new ‘right’ to play for either team or even that the FAI had jurisdiction in Northern Ireland, as well as the IFA. 

The SDLP’s motion is a transparent attempt to place the Republic of Ireland team on an equal footing with the Northern Ireland team, in the IFA’s home city, Belfast.  In other words, it has very little to do with reconciliation or community relations and everything to do with promoting the party’s nationalist ideas.  It is also designed to provoke a hostile reaction from unionist parties, which can then be portrayed as grudging and unreasonable.  The teams, their players, supporters and governing associations are being used as the archetypal “political football”.

Unionist parties, for the most part, responded with typical guilelessness.  Councillor Jim Rodgers, from the UUP, contrived the bizarre notion that the English and Welsh football teams should be added to the guest list.  Designed simply to derail any prospect of a reception, the Ulster Unionists’ stunt is even more transparent than the SDLP plan which prompted it.

The Progressive Unionist Party’s leader, Billy Hutchinson, went further, threatening that loyalists might stage demonstrations against the event, similar in style to the ‘flag protests’ which caused disruption in Belfast, after the council’s decision to fly the Union Flag only on designated days.  Mr Hutchinson is an unlikely champion of the Northern Ireland team, given his fondness for sporting England tops and his words carry an unhelpful undercurrent of menace.

The IFA worked tirelessly and successfully to eradicate sectarianism in the stands at internationals and persuade people from right across the community to attend matches at the National Stadium.  The association certainly doesn’t need to be linked, however tenuously, with a set of flag waving protesters, causing a ruckus outside the City Hall.

So far, the SDLP’s scheming appears to be going perfectly.  The motion has sewn discord among councillors and citizens and it is likely to be carried, with Alliance, which has the decisive votes, backing another divisive motion in the council chamber.

The party’s stance is ironic, because its policies are supposed to be based on the idea that Northern Ireland and Northern Irishness can bind British and Irish, unionist and nationalist, together.  Instead, Alliance is about to support a proposal which undermines the idea that Northern Ireland’s teams and institutions are for everyone, implying instead that ‘equality’ means according teams and institutions from the Republic the same status in this jurisdiction. 

They're endorsing a segregationist, nationalist outlook, while at the same time joining the SDLP and Sinn Fein to deliver a small and petty blow to Northern Ireland football and the Northern Irish identity.