Earlier this week stories began to break of comments made by Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill regarding what he says as the unfair targeting of Northern Irish based players by the FAI for the Irish National Team. Michael felt that that the FAI’s selection process was unfair, deliberately taking advantage of social and political divides in Northern Ireland. Now, the dust seems to have settled somewhat and I thought I’d take the opportunity to give my individual, personal opinion on the eligibility row.
By virtue of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act 1956, Irish nationality has been available to anyone born in Northern Ireland. As such, FIFA considers any player born within Northern Ireland to be eligible to represent Northern Ireland (IFA for sake of ease) itself or the Republic of Ireland (FAI) if they acquire such citizenship. This is a fact that cannot be disputed. IFA took their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the summer of 2010 at which point the CAS upheld FIFA’s ruling.
It should be noted that within the CAS report, there was recognition that the above ruling has led to “an unfair one-way street” as players born in the Republic of Ireland can not avail of dual nationality – in other words they cannot declare for Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the decision stands and it is a decision that needs to be respected.
What also needs to be respected is the fundamental issue that there are a large number of players born in Northern Ireland who simply have no desire to represent the IFA at an international level. Whilst Michael O’Neill and the IFA have made great strides in improving cross-community efforts linked to the National team this is something that will probably never change.
For me, the issue comes when players represent IFA at a youth level only to jump ship when FAI come calling. Again, this is allowable under FIFA and UEFA regulations, however, I feel there needs to be some recognition of the unique situation IFA/FAI find themselves in. A best case scenario would be to have some level of final commitment, potentially at U19/U21 stage at which age the vast majority of players are under professional contracts and should be clear about their future in the game.
Michael O’Neill has spoken about the potential of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between both associations which would see neither side approach a player who has made a significant number of appearances at youth level for one or the other teams. This seems to be a very sensible approach and as a beneficial by-product would help to sustain a good working relationship between the IFA and the FAI.
As a Northern Ireland fan, I am obviously keen to see the IFA retain as much of our comparatively small pool of players as possible and reaching out to those eligible through family roots has been a great help in addition to this. Of course, players like Oliver Norwood have made youth appearances for England and this shouldn’t be ignored, however, as per the above point this was at a youth level below the age of professional football and further to that I don’t believe Northern Ireland have capped any player that had a realistic chance at senior international football with a rival nation.
One point that I feel must be considered is whether there is a fundamental footballing issue that is pushing players away from representing the IFA. Debates over anthems, flags and other symbols will continue to rage on but this is something that needs to be looked into for the sake of those who grow up through IFA youth teams to simply walk away to the FAI’s clutches.
This is an issue that will continue to be a thorn in the side of football North and South of the border. While I do believe some of Michael O’Neill’s comments were perhaps poorly made it does raise yet again a conversation that needs to be had. It’s a conversation that needs to be had by level headed people devoid of any preset political, social or religious agenda. Sadly, so many have been quick to jump on the bandwagon for their own gains whether that be politicians, journalists or fans themselves.
I’m interested to see how things develop over the coming months and years, particularly with the upcoming North v South friendly fixture later this year. As I expressed, this is simply my own personal opinion on the matter and I look forward to hearing the opinions, thoughts and ideas of others. The IFA and FAI have common ground in that neither have a domestic league strong enough on its own to sustain its respective national team, it makes sense that there would be indepth discussion between both associations to ensure that International football does not become the farcical transfer system that appears at times at elite club level football. After all, international football is more built on the strength of pride and passion in playing for the shirt and the crowd than simply following the money or fame.