Irish football’s not-so-hard border

The motion tabled in the House of Commons, in London, by Jim Shannon, a DUP MP, is a straightforward one, writes Paul Rouse.

Irish football’s not-so-hard border

It moves: “That this House expresses concern over the pursuit of Northern Ireland-born football players by the Football Association Ireland; and calls for the chief executive of the FAI, John Delaney, to send out a clear message that there will be no poaching of NI players, that the boundary lines will be respected and honoured, and that the game will be played fairly and within the rules.”

Four other DUP MPs also signed the motion, and although there will be no formal debate, it is indicative of the enduring divide between the FAI and the IFA over the success the former has enjoyed in courting players from north of the border to play for the Republic of Ireland.

In recent years, James McClean, Shane Duffy, and Darron Gibson, all born in Northern Ireland, shifted allegiance south, having previously played underage soccer for the North.

The immediate context is the Good Friday Agreement and the post-Troubles accommodation of contested identities on this island.

The roots of this dispute lie in the divided politics of Ireland and the peculiar nature of the geography of soccer here.

That soccer spread into Ireland through Belfast ensured that the Irish Football Association was founded in that city, in 1880.

It was Belfast players who dominated the first Ireland teams, fielded (generally unsuccessfully) against England, Scotland, and Wales in the later decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century.

The partition of Ireland, and the establishment, in 1922, of the Football Association of Ireland — for a time known as the Football Association of the Irish Free State — brought immediate change to the internal organisation of soccer on the island.

From that point onwards, the IFA controlled internal competitions north of the border and the new FAI performed the same function in the south.

While the transition to this new arrangement could not be described as seamless, and certainly wasn’t harmonious, it was nonetheless clear.

What proved much more difficult was the international divide. This proved enduringly rancorous.

By 1924, the island had the luxury of fielding two international teams, and they both called themselves ‘Ireland’.

Indeed, the Belfast-based IFA regarded the FAI as usurpers and frequently revealed their views on the matter, including in a 1954 memorandum:”‘The Irish FA functioned harmoniously until a political movement, inspired by a religious element, caused a readjustment of relations between Ireland and the British government.”

The IFA also claimed, as late as the 1950s, that “the IFA remains the national association and, indeed, the only association, entitled to use the title ‘Ireland’.”

For its part, the FAI repeatedly complained to Fifa that the part of Ireland “still held as part of the UK” was using the name ‘Ireland‘, when it should properly be calling itself Northern Ireland.

For the IFA Ireland team, there was an annual round of home internationals against England, Scotland, and Wales.

For the FAI Ireland team, there was a small sprinkling of friendly matches, before the decision was taken to enter the qualifying matches for the first World Cup, in 1934.

This campaign — and the one in 1938 — brought no success, beyond the actual statement of entering.

For its part, the IFA in Belfast did not enter, taking its lead from England, in its lack of interest in, or recognition of, the World Cup.

By the mid-1930s, every year, the FAI Ireland team was embarking on an international tour of European countries, with return visits also paid to Dublin.

By the outbreak of World War II, they had played 39 times internationally.

The war ended international contests until 1946, when the FAI Ireland team toured Spain and Portugal.

By then, the Irish border was more entrenched. The illusion that the Boundary Commission, which had been established in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, would somehow render Northern Ireland unviable and would deliver a united Ireland in political terms, had been long shattered.

The reality of partition was manifest not just in symbols, such as flags and anthems, but also in state policies on education, welfare, health and broadcasting.

And yet, for all that the bitterness of identity politics morphed into violence and for all that religion wrapped itself like bindweed around ideas of Irishness and Britishness, there were people who were more than happy to ignore all of that in search of sporting progress.

Indeed, amid all the bitterness, there emerged something of a free-for-all, in which both the FAI and IFA fielded teams known as ‘Ireland’ and, despite the urgings of Fifa, both freely chose players from either side of the border.

Indeed, before 1950, more than 40 players lined out for Ireland teams selected by both competing soccer bodies.

In the 1940s, the practice of players from Dublin playing for the IFA Ireland team actually grew, with the players seeing no problem in answering Belfast’s call; there were, after all, match fees paid to all who travelled.

The most famous of the players to have played for both teams was the captain of Manchester United, Johnny Carey.

Carey was the great star of his era, a wonderful player, who was respected by all in the game.

He had a magnificent international career, despite the upheaval of the Second World War.

He won seven caps with the IFA Ireland team, 28 caps with the FAI Ireland team, and captained both.

Such was the absurdity of the system, that Carey played for the IFA Ireland team against England, at Windsor Park on February 28, 1946, and did the same for the FAI Ireland team at Dalymount Park, two days later.

This did not just happen for international friendly matches, it also happened in competitive games, after Northern Ireland belatedly competed in World Cup qualifiers.

For the 1950 World Cup — the first World Cup to be played after the war — both associations fielded teams in the World Cup qualifying competitions. Four players actually played in qualifying matches for both countries.

It was one thing to play in friendly matches, but it now became untenable that players should be selected for both the IFA and the FAI selections for the same tournament.

A solution was brokered. The IFA fielded its team as Northern Ireland and the FAI fielded theirs as the Republic of Ireland, and the practice of claiming jurisdiction over players from across the island ended with players now restricted to playing for one team or the other.

What emerged was an uneasy relationship, essentially devoid of warmth and fellowship.

For all that soccer was a game that united men and women on both sides of the border, the swirl of politics — national, international, local and sporting — ensured that what divided them remained too great a chasm to cross.

There were various low-points: the 1979 riots, when Dundalk played Linfield in the European Cup, or the poisonous atmosphere at a World Cup qualifier in Windsor Park, in 1993, to give just two examples.

Recent years have brought something of a thaw, not least in relations between clubs north and south of the border.

The logical endpoint of this thaw is an all-island league between the clubs of Ireland. But is that what people want? More to the point, is that what people who love soccer, and who promote it at all levels, north and south of the border, want?

It would be interesting to hear the real opinions that people hold in answer to that question.

And what of a United Ireland international team? What compromises would people make to allow that to happen? Where would the team play? What would its crest and its anthem and its flag be?

Such questions sit at the heart of all international sport. They can be answered, if the will is great enough and if the broader context of sport is a stable island where divisions are minimised.

And yet, it does not feel overly pessimistic to note that it seems most unlikely.

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