FOOTBALL chiefs backed down yesterday and allowed players with Irish passports play for Northern Ireland without holding a British passport.
The decision by the game’s world governing body FIFA followed the intervention of Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern.
Northern Secretary Peter Hain hailed the U-turn, which also followed intensive lobbying by the Irish Football Association in Belfast.
A statement on the IFA website said: "The Irish Football Association is pleased to announce that ... a solution has been reached which will allow players holding an Irish passport to continue to represent Northern Ireland.
"This will negate the need in future for those with Irish passports to require a British one for administrative purposes, in order to represent Northern Ireland and to satisfy match commissioners."
The IFA said administrative detail of the policy had still to be finalised.
Mr Hain praised the decision to relax the regulations and said people had the right to choose which passport they held.
He added: "I am delighted by this news, which is a victory for common sense and for all football fans in Northern Ireland.
"It is a great achievement for the Irish Football Association to have persuaded FIFA to this pragmatic outcome.
"The right of people in Northern Ireland to choose to identify themselves as Irish, British or both, is fundamental to the Belfast Agreement."
Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said: "When this issue first became an obvious problem I made representations to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin seeking that they intervene with FIFA to see the ridiculous ruling regarding British passports was overturned in recognition of the unique constitutional position regarding the six counties.
SDLP sports spokesman Pat Ramsey said the previous rules amounted to discrimination.
"Families and young people with a Irish background will be reassured by today’s announcement that there will be no exclusion or non-participation because of one’s Irishness.
"A number of young players who were called up recently for the under 21 squad were shocked, disappointed and angered by the condition that they must carry a British passport," he added.
"It is right to alter the stupidity of a regulation coming from FIFA," said Mr Ramsey.