Irish players and crossing the Football Border

by Richard Chambers

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has rejected the IFA’s appeal in the case concerning the eligibility of Daniel Kearns, formerly of West Ham United, to play for the Republic of Ireland. The case re-affirms that Northern Irish footballers may choose to play for the Republic of Ireland, even if the player has represented Northern Ireland at underage level.

The IFA had contended that Northern Irish players with no biological grandparents from the Republic of Ireland should not be allowed to play for the Republic under Article 16 of FIFA’s international eligibility rules. The FAI successfully countered that argument with the provisions of Article 15, which states that a player granted citizenship of a nation may represent that nation if he has not been capped at international level for another country.

Kearns follows Darron Gibson, Shane Duffy and Marc Wilson in declaring for the Republic and the decision was greeted by both Kearns and FAI, with the association praising the ruling for upholding “the right of individual choice on this matter for players born north of the border”. With so many young Northern Irish footballers making the decision to switch allegiances to the Republic of Ireland for senior international football, the question stands as to why these players are looking south.

For years, the IFA have been trying to encourage Northern Irish footballers on both sides of the political spectrum to participate in football at all levels. Their Football for All programme has been at the heart of this effort. The attempts to promote Northern Irish football in a cross-community manner has had some success but the old divisions still endure.

Marc Wilson, who declared for the Republic in 2008, has stated that he had grown up supporting the Republic of Ireland as a boy and despite the best efforts of the IFA, this continues to be the case for many Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The issue of the national anthem and the flag continues to be debated ad infinitum while the issue of sectarianism still hangs over the game north of the border. These barriers will prevent further inroads into the divide but credit must go to the IFA for their noble attempts at encouraging cross-community footballing unison.

The association has received the backing of Neil Lennon, who was infamously forced to retired from his Northern Irish international career having been on the receiving end of death threats and sectarian abuse. Lennon, currently managing Glasgow Celtic, has since hailed the ‘brilliant atmosphere’ at Windsor Park since 2005. Further efforts by the IFA have included the removal of loyalist graffiti from the walls of the national stadium.

Sectarianism is not the only reason for players shifting allegiances to the Republic of Ireland. After all, Catholics such as Pat Jennings and Martin O’Neill represented the North at World Cups. Darron Gibson’s reasons for electing to represent the Republic of Ireland stem purely from a footballing perspective, with the FAI actively lobbying the player to choose their national side instead of Northern Ireland.

Whatever the reasons behind these ‘defections’ the FAI’s policy of recruiting players who have represented Northern Ireland at underage level can be seen as morally questionable at best. Of course the personal decision of the players is paramount in these decision, but the eagerness with which the FAI is ‘poaching’, as the IFA have described it, these players who have already represented another nation at underage level is unfortunate.

These acquisitions have provoked an passionate reaction amongst Northern Irish politicians with many, including Northern Irish Sports Minister Nelson McCausland, arguing that the ruling represented a ‘poor result for local football’. The future of Northern Irish football is threatened by the ruling and the ruling will only add to the momentum carrying young Northern Irish footballers towards careers with the Republic. The Ulster Unionist Party’s Jim Rodgers perhaps summed up the situation most distinctly.

‘If someone doesn’t want to play for you, there isn’t much you can do about it,’ the Glentoran FC board member said, adding that ‘these young people accept the investment that is poured into their careers at an early stage and should stay with the sporting bodies who helped develop them with time and money.’ Whatever the future of cross-community efforts in Northern Ireland brings, for the time being we can only presume that more young Northern Irish footballers will opt to represent the Republic of Ireland in the coming years.

2 Responses

  1. Emmet Ryan says:

    The big issue with the Pat Jennings’ of this world is that while the Troubles were far worse in that era, attitudes towards the Northern Ireland Football team were far less sectarian (where those divides seemed to expressed almost exclusively at club level).

    The difference was that as players of Lennon’s generation progressed, the sectarian issues became far more prevalent. Part of this was related to the Republic’s rise as a footballing force in the late 80s an early 90s and the corresponding decline in Northern Ireland’s fortunes over the same period.

  2. wildIrishGuy says:

    Know that there are forty good reasons from both sides why they should not, but always does seem a shame it is not an all Ireland team like the Rugby, would be so much more powerful in competitions.

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