Events last week in Switzerland caused me to think of a tribe of people on this island that I have little affinity with, but occasionally I have had to share a space with.
Northern Ireland soccer fans.This comes after the Irish Football Association took a case against west Belfast youth, Daniel Kearns, objecting to the rules, which deemed him, eligible to represent the Republic of Ireland.
The IFA was challenging the eligibility of northerners to represent the Republic of Ireland was finally resolved last week, with the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The CAS has ruled in favour of the player, FIFA and the FAI.
Quite simply the IFA wanted to force Daniel Kearns into playing for Northern Ireland or no one.
Young Daniel wished to assert his rights as an Irish citizen to represent his country, the Republic of Ireland, at association football.
The Belfast agreement recognises the right of anyone born in the Six Counties to be “British, Irish, or both.”
It is an intelligent approach to that fractured society shoehorned in 1922 into a dysfunctional and discriminatory statelet.
The “or both” part of the Belfast agreement has, rightly in my view, come in for high praise.
However on the sports field you can’t play for two teams. Some might feel that sporting events should not be politicised.
However that is, I suspect, rather naive.
Great sporting events have been used for political purposes since the days of “Bread and Circuses.”
Mussolini, Hitler and Franco had a keen sense of the political uses of the beautiful game to enthrall the masses in 20th century Europe.
Sport, like everything else in the Northern statelet, has been politicised by the religio/political divide since the creation of the Orange Statelet.
The IFA will feel aggrieved at this decision, but in the end it was a futile case they were taking to the CAS.
The IFA will point to the great work they have done over the last eight years to cleaning up Windsor Park and cleansing the place of the sectarianism that characterised it.
However they have much work to do to expunge the memory of the treatment meted out to Neil Lennon in March 2001.
It was a game against Norway. Every time the Northern Ireland player touched the ball he was booed-by the Northern Ireland fans.
After the match a bemused Ole Gunnar Solskjær in a post match interview did not know why the Norn Iron fans were booing their own player.
In August 2002 just before Neil Lennon could captain Northern Ireland for the first time, somebody phoned the BBC and threatened to kill Lennon. The police, recognising the paramilitary codeword considered the threat “credible”. The Celtic midfielder, who had had death threats before, withdrew from the match. He never played for his Northern Ireland again.
Lennon received no support, no solidarity from the IFA.
The game should have been cancelled.
The isolation of Lennon in the face of this appalling treatment, first from fans at Windsor park then from the Loyalist paramilitaries demand them in the eyes of many northern nationalists.
Given this recent history it is actually remarkable that players like Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn turn out for the Northern Statelet and listen to God Save The Queen as their anthem at Windsor park.
That is, of course, their choice.
This is what the CAS ruled on last week. Choice.
What is certain is that the FAI can make a legal offer to any young player from the North to play for the tricolour in Dublin.
The IFA are now powerless to stop that.
I’m sure George Best will be smiling down on this lad. The Belfast genius always called himself Irish never “Northern Irish” or any other regional label of Ukania.
He knew he was an Irishman and he advocated an all Ireland soccer team.
The defeat for the IFA is a defeat for sectarianism in soccer on this island.
Their case went against the spirit of the Belfast agreement.
My own experiences of Norn Iron fans are not positive.
I recall being at Lansdowne road in 1993 for a world cup qualifier.
I found myself sitting among Belfast lads and the group of Glaswegians and Donegalies that I had travelled over from Scotland with.
At the old Lansdowne road we were, sadly, within earshot of the supports of club UDA. “Norn Iron”.
28 minutes later it was three nil.
The only team in Ireland were handing out a lesson.
Still they droned on about being up to their knees in Fenian blood. Perhaps some of them had real experience of this in a Shankhill road romper room.
Windsor Park is set on the edge of the loyalist Village area, for years a dumping-ground for the bodies of the Catholic victims of loyalist paramilitary death squads. Catholics visiting Windsor Park definitely needed
The experience of their own player almost a decade later was further evidence that the “Norn Iron” fans were little more than a sectarian mob.
Why ANY player, other than a hardcore loyalist, would now want to be associated with them is beyond me.
However that is their choice.
Anyone born on this island, post the 1998 Belfast agreement, has, as a birthright, Irish citizenship.
They can, therefore, represent Ireland at sport if they are selected.
The IFA’s attempts to force northern Catholics/Nationalists/Republicans to play for NI were unseemly at best and offensive at worst.
It was the old Unionist dominance at play, as if the Belfast Agreement had never happened.
Hopefully the trickle of talent from the 06 into the thanks of the RoI team becomes a raging flood and the IFA and their fans are left to consider the real cost that night when they booed their own player for the crime of being a catholic from Lurgan.
The IFA did absolutely nothing about this – it was just accepted. In fact, they gave that ridiculous 100-year lease to Linfield (they of the sectarian anti-Catholic signing policy).
Perhaps the IFA would be better off taking a hard look at the non-inclusive nature of their product rather than seeking a legal remedy.
If they want to encourage young nationalists to play for them then they should excise:
1) God save the Queen as their anthem
2) Union Jacks and other Loyalist symbols
3) Loyalist songs and chants from their fans.
Truth is, many of the fans of the Northern Ireland football team are perfectly happy with a “Protestant team for a Protestant people”.
The Unionist people of the North Eastern part of this island should, ironically, be more aware than most that you cannot compel anyone to have a cultural identity if they don’t want it.
That is what the IFA have been trying to do to young players in the North from a nationalist background.
The IFA and its Northern Ireland international soccer team are now paying the price for generations of sectarianism.
They did nothing to tackle that until the treatment of Neil Lennon less than ten years ago.
The IFA tried to spin this abuse of Lennon as aberrant. However it was anything but.
They now claim their “football for all” campaign has everything rosy in the garden.
I’m not convinced.
Back on that rainy day in 1993 after the third goal went in the Lansdowne road crowd started to sing “there’s only one team in Ireland!”
The Norn Iron fans in the stand above continued to defiantly wade up to their knees in Fenian blood.
Unlike rugby union we don’t have an all island team for soccer, but there should be.
The judgment of the CAS last week is, perhaps, a step along that road.