There were just two days between Northern Ireland’s matches against San Marino and Germany. Time enough for the BBC to turn into headline news a petty dispute about the Irish FA’s guest-list for the official opening of the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.
This event took place before the San Marino game on Saturday night and included a ‘lap of legends’, with ‘some famous Northern Ireland faces’ walking round the pitch ‘accompanied by (special guests) from the football family’. The IFA invited “well known fans”, like Carl Frampton, Jimmy Nesbitt, Gary Lightbody and others, but didn’t invite ‘Team Ireland’ Paralympians Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop.
Smyth complained about his omission on Twitter, choosing to ‘tag’ Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in his tweet, while McKillop registered his public displeasure later.
This ‘story’ raises a few questions. Why on earth did the BBC think it important enough to lead its television news in Northern Ireland? What kind of person deems himself a ‘legend’? And, perhaps the least interesting: why weren’t the two athletes invited?
Smyth believes he was overlooked because he represents Team Ireland, rather than Team GB, two of whose members took part in the lap. The IFA blamed an ‘oversight’. The event had been arranged quickly and there were limited spaces for 'legends' available.
There’s no reason to doubt that explanation, particularly because the association made a later offer to add Michael McKillop to the event. However, had it decided to exclude ‘Team Ireland’ athletes on principle, the decision would have been perfectly justifiable.
Olympic teams and Paralympic teams, with very few exceptions, represent nation states.
Team Ireland, despite its misleading name, represents the Republic of Ireland, whose symbols it uses prominently. Athletes from Northern Ireland qualify for inclusion by virtue of their entitlement to citizenship of the Republic of Ireland, even though there is a separate UK team, Team GB, which represents Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It’s true that many sports, like rugby and golf, organise on an all-Ireland basis. Though efforts to use inclusive symbols are often lacking, officially their representative teams represent both parts of the island, which spans two separate nation states.
It would be unusual if the Irish FA were not acutely aware of these fine distinctions around sports eligibility, because it was involved in a prolonged dispute with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), the governing body for football in the Republic of Ireland. In recent years, the FAI persuaded young Northern Irish players to defect to its teams, for which they qualified by virtue of Republic of Ireland citizenship.
Northern Ireland is a cross-community team and the Irish FA is a cross-community organisation. It is right and appropriate that it looks to include people from all backgrounds at its events and attempts to reflect Irish culture and symbols, but that’s not the same as recognising the symbols, teams or institutions of the Republic of Ireland.
Olympic and Paralympic sport features multiple events, and athletes from Northern Ireland find themselves representing the Republic for various reasons, which don’t always include political allegiance. The distinction between all-Ireland teams and Republic of Ireland teams is often ignored, either deliberately or because it causes confusion.
When Rory McIlroy stated his intention initially to compete for Team GB rather than Team Ireland at the Olympics, there were howls of outrage and copious personal abuse, because he had played previously for the Ireland golf team, organised by an all-Ireland body, the Golf Union of Ireland (GUI).
Rory later switched his allegiance to the Republic, before deciding eventually that he wouldn’t go to the Rio games at all. Throughout the whole acrimonious discussion, it was scarcely acknowledged that the GUI was always supposed to represent both parts of the island, relying on funds from member golf clubs in both nation states.
It would be odd if the Irish Football Association, of all sporting bodies, were so cavalier about important differences. It is not responsible for the common conflation of 'Ireland' with the 'Republic of Ireland' and 'Irish' with 'citizen of the Republic of Ireland state'. It’s that stubborn refusal by many nationalists to accept the fact of Northern Ireland’s existence that is frequently at the root of false controversies about discrimination against Irishness.