SHOULD THERE BE AN ALL-IRELAND FOOTBALL TEAM?

Some 54% of people in Northern Ireland would favour an all-island football team, according to a report published in the Belfast Telegraph.

This comes after the topic was discussed in detail on Second Captains last week, entering the idea back into the public sphere.

On the podcast, Ken Early argued for an all-Ireland team saying that both Irish teams would struggle to qualify for the World Cup for the foreseeable future and a united team would give us a much better opportunity.


Meanwhile, Richie Sadlier argued the opposite case saying that he was apathetic to any change currently and it would cause more problems than it was worth on both sides.

Unlike sports like rugby and golf that operate under a single union, Irish football has been separeted since it split into two organisations in the 1920s.

It was the FAI that initiated the move, according to football historian Cormac Moore, over perceived IFA bias towards Ulster. Coupled with tensions arising from partition and the War of Independence, an infuriated Leinster FA set up a breakaway union to be known as the FAI.

Since then, the two teams have formed their own identities and enjoyed their own moments of success. Northern Ireland had the glory days of the 1980s where they reached successive World Cup finals and the Irish had the late 80s and early 90s where Jack’s Army reached the last 8 stage of two international tournaments.

Unusually, it comes at an exciting time for teams both sides of the border as the two sides have qualified for Euro 2016 in France next summer. Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland has qualified for the first European Championship in their history.

Why now would we want to upset the balance? Some would argue that success generally bring more interest and an all-Ireland team would be undoubtedly stronger. There is little doubt that the Republic would be improved with the contributions of Jonny Evans and Steven Davis for example.

While Irish teams have qualified for an expanded European Championships, neither has qualified for the past three editions of the World Cup. Both Liam Brady and George Best lamented the lack of a united Ireland team during their careers, which helped contribute to two world-class players never playing in a World Cup.

Some point to the Irish rugby team which has seamlessly risen above any potential sectarian or nationalistic tensions that might occur. Ireland is rightly proud of its rugby team, which has achieved great success in recent years and features players from both sides of the border.

However, the key word in any amalgamation between the two teams is compromise. There are a lot of logistical concerns that might deter fans from both sides.

Firstly, going back to the origin of the split, the location for all-Ireland matches is a bone of contention. The FAI would like to claim that all matches would be held at the Aviva Stadium with its superior capacity and superior facilities.

This would be unpopular with the loyal Windsor Park faithful from which large sections come from inner-city unionist Belfast.

The compromise here would be that games would be rotated between Windsor Park and the Aviva Stadium. However, would fans from Munster and Connacht be happy to attend games in Belfast? It may be tough to get tickets to see Ireland in Windsor Park, which after renovation will still only hold 20,000 people. It would mean most Republic fans would miss half of Ireland’s games.

Secondly, flags, symbols and anthems have caused so much trouble in Northern Ireland. Flags from each side line towns and cities of the North. A tricolour to represent an all-Ireland team would simply not be accepted by the Northern Irish.

Similarly, it does not need to be said how unpopular NI’s God Save the Queen would be in the Aviva Stadium. Symbolism would have to be neutral and old-fashioned patriotism kept at a minimum.

Finally, despite the success of the Good Friday Agreement, there are still extremist sections, especially among the NI fanbase.

Rory McIlroy was attacked by both sides earlier this year for having the audacity to congratulate the Republic of Ireland team as well as the Northern Irish one.

Neil Lennon retired from international football in 2002 because of a death threat that he received before a Northern Ireland match against Cyprus for apparently suggesting he would like to play for an all-Ireland team. Such an incident reveals the security problems that are still a concern.

In summary, while the potential strength of the team is an exciting prospect, the question of identity is hard to ignore. Are we willing to accept a diluted version of what we may perceive to be Irishness for the sake of a new unified identity for this football or are we happy with the status quo that has seen two sides develop distinct footballing cultures, ingrained by generations? These surveys show that we are moving towards the former but we still have a long way to go before it becomes a concrete plan.

David Gorman

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