All-Ireland team call remains as divisive as ever

As the island of Ireland prepares to field two teams at this year's Euro2016 Championships, Brendan O'Brien, suggests the next six months could say much about how we see ourselves, both north and south.

All-Ireland team call remains as divisive as ever

IF you are old enough to have watched TV in the 1980s — a time when remote controls were far from ubiquitous, and roughly half of all sibling fights emanated from disagreements over who would switch channels — then chances are you will remember an advert that ran for a while on UTV that was cheesier than a Dairylea plant.

It went something like this:

‘Come on Northern Ireland, come on. There’s a whole lot of work to be done You can make it in the end with a little help from your friends. So come on Northern Ireland, come on.’

It only spanned 21 seconds but it must be one of the most memorable advertising ditties ever generated on this island as it still rattles away inside this head on a fairly regular basis.

A look at the video brought back even more memories: Barry McGuigan shadow boxing to the camera, Billy Hamilton wheeling away chest out in that inimitable style of his after heading home one of his goals against Austria in the 1982 World Cup and lots of shots of industrious men and women in various factories and the Harland and Wolff shipyards.

This column has long lost count of the number of visits made to the North, mostly for the purposes of GAA and rugby press conferences and games, in the last 10 years and the IDB’s brainchild sometimes worms its way into the consciousness at one point or other before the return south.

Now and again, it makes itself heard with a hum but never more than that and never in company.

Not since the Féile in 1991, anyway.

There are few things more ignorant than an underage teenage drinker at a music festival but no-one in our small group in Thurles that day 24 years ago could have expected the backlash experienced when a good-humoured rendition of the IDB chorus was met with near apoplexy by a bunch of men — they must have been at least 21 — with northern accents and who promptly ordered us to desist.

It very nearly came to blows.

This was at a time when the evening news was frequently dominated by tragic events in the north of the island, of course, and yet this was the first time that this know-nothing youngster from the midlands came face to face with the complex relationship that many people in the North had with their own surroundings and we are seeing that writ large in recent months.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill was in Dublin on Wednesday where he was named joint Philips Sports Manager of the Year alongside his Republic of Ireland counterpart Martin O’Neill. MC for the day was Des Cahill who was merely voicing many people’s thoughts when he brought up the hoary old question of a united Irish side.

Cahill shaved the edge off the topic with his trademark humour and Michael O’Neill took the cue by keeping it comical but the former Shamrock Rovers manager was far less jovial when quizzed on the same issue by radio journalists in an ante-room after the awards, and he faced similar queries when the dailies had their time.

It has been the matter of civic receptions that has again brought to the forefront the complex attitudes of many people in Northern Ireland towards this island’s two representative football teams with proposals to officially acknowledge the achievements of both in reaching Euro 2016 causing considerable grief in some corridors of varying degrees of power.

“We had one,” said Michael O’Neill. “Trust me, one civic reception is enough. I’ve had to do two, one in Ballymena as well. At the end of the day, people will choose who they want to support.

"I have family members that will support the Republic of Ireland in the European Championships. They won’t wish Northern Ireland any ill will, that’s their choice. I’ve no problem with it, to be honest.”

The former Armagh forward Oisin McConville touched on this in a recent ‘Second Captains’ podcast when he spoke about how his attitude towards Ulster’s rugby team has changed down the years.

He wouldn’t think twice about making for the Kingspan Stadium now for a big game, but a night at Windsor Park is not something that he has ever contemplated.

It was a fascinating perspective.

The recently published book The Irish Soccer Split has already cast the spotlight on the background to the separation of association football on the island and the author, Cormac Moore, has brought it to our attention that a recent University of Ulster study found that 54% of those surveyed in the north favoured an all-Ireland team.

The breakdown was 70% of Catholics and 39% of Protestants. If nothing else, the presence of two Irish sides at the Euros in 2016 will focus attention both here and abroad on the unique situation here and the relationship which we all hold with the sides wearing green in France.

This next six months will say a lot about how we see ourselves, both north and south.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob

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