Wednesday, 29 June 2016

From Euro 2016 euphoria to the IFA's new president

While I was in France, watching Northern Ireland compete at Euro 2016, I read Evan Marshall’s brilliant book, Spirit of 58, which charts the team’s first major tournament finals, almost sixty years ago.  

It’s a great story, describing how the country’s manager, Peter Doherty, transformed perennial whipping boys into a squad of formidable professionals, who then advanced to the quarter finals of the 1958 World Cup.  It’s written vividly and lucidly, on the back of freshly researched source material and a wealth of new interviews.

One of the striking themes, which clearly frustrates the author, is the consistent ineptitude of the Irish Football Association, the sport’s organising body in Northern Ireland.  The IFA refused to allow a full panel of players to travel to the tournament in Sweden, it frustrated Doherty’s attempts to scout opposition matches, it botched hotel bookings – with the result that an injury-ravaged team missed out on much needed rest – and, worst of all, it almost stopped Northern Ireland competing in the first place, because of controversy about playing games on a Sunday.  

Fifty-eight years later, much has changed and little has changed.  

The squad of 2016 certainly had all the amenities it needed to compete in France and it played matches on the Sabbath, during qualification and during the tournament itself, with few serious objections.  However, the IFA still has a formidable talent for bungling matters off the field, even while its international team is over-achieving on it.  

Last night, the association elected David Martin as its president.  This is a man who was forced out as IFA treasurer, after the sports minister made it clear that the organisation was not fit for purpose and couldn’t receive government monies while some of its officers were still in place.  Not to be discouraged, Mr Martin failed three independent suitably tests, as he attempted to find his way back into prominent posts in local football.  In 2013, the IFA changed its rules at an AGM, so that officers no longer needed to prove their suitability to an independent panel.

A lot of the problems underlying Mr Martin’s comeback would be familiar to the football community in 1958.  Tiny little clubs, many of them from church leagues, rather than Irish League teams, drove opposition to playing football on a Sunday and jeopardised Northern Ireland’s involvement in the World Cup.  Likewise, Mr Martin built up his power-base in junior football, and he was linked to the ‘Dunloy Proposals’, which almost derailed funding for the new National Stadium at Windsor Park, as small clubs made a grab for more influence.  

The IFA has changed over the years and there are professional staff amongst its ranks.  In most respects, it did a good job of promoting and organising Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 campaign, so that it was memorable for players and supporters alike.  It would be a real shame if that hard work is undermined by the election of the association’s foremost officer.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

EU debate doesn't impact Good Friday Agreement, but it exposes its 'conjuring trick'

European flag outside the Commission

The Good Friday Agreement was a clever, influential document because it defined a political struggle over sovereignty in Northern Ireland in terms of a much more slippery concept: identity.  No piece of paper could tell people whether they were British or Irish or both, and the prerogative of people born here to take citizenship of the Republic of Ireland existed long before 1998, but the agreement reassured voters that their professed identities would be recognised and respected under new power-sharing arrangements.

Northern Ireland is now in the midst of another emotional debate about sovereignty as UK voters decide whether to stay in the European Union or opt for ‘Brexit’.  Alongside practical arguments about the economy and the Irish border, some campaigners have tried to suggest that the principles which underpin the Belfast Agreement could be undermined by a vote for ‘Leave’.  The foolish implication is that Irish identity in Northern Ireland is dependent upon membership of the EU. 

That is a dangerous idea, which underestimates the extent to which relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland are on a solid legal footing and overestimates the reach of the Agreement.  All the practical rights of citizenship, residency and freedom of movement, exercised by Irish people in the UK and vice-versa, are enshrined in British and Irish law, most of it predating Good Friday 1998, not to mention Britain’s accession to the European Union. 

Anyone born in Northern Ireland will still be entitled to citizenship of the Irish Republic and, by extension, citizenship of the European Union, whatever the result of the referendum.  Likewise, the Republic is not regarded in British law as a foreign country and, if its citizens are resident in the UK, they have the same rights to live, work and vote as British citizens.  Some arguments are ongoing about how the Irish border might operate, in the event of Brexit, but there’s no serious suggestion that free movement across the British Isles would be restricted.

As for identity, the Brexit debate has shown that it is an elusive concept in comparison to sovereignty.  The Belfast Agreement determined that Northern Ireland’s constitutional future should be decided by a majority of voters here, but it also switched the central focus of politics to more abstract questions around culture and identity.  The arguments over the referendum don’t impact materially on power-sharing or other totems of the ‘peace process’, but they do threaten to expose the Agreement’s most successful conjuring trick.                         

Campaigners on either side of the referendum debate are using emotive arguments to support their points of view.  However, come the 24th of June, we’ll all still have to share the same region and confront the same issues, whatever the final result.  It’s irresponsible and inaccurate to suggest that either the peace process or the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland is under discussion.    Whether the UK decides to remain in the EU, or leave, no-one’s identity is under threat and no-one will be any less British or Irish, after the votes are counted.  

This article is published in today's News Letter.