JACK ANDERSON: Life after Good Friday: Pride in sport gladdens the Northern soul

This week is the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

While the current impasse at the Northern Ireland Assembly appears to reflect badly on its legacy; in contrast, the success of the current NI Commonwealth Games’ squad shows the post-Agreement North at its very best.

A creative ambiguity marks the Good Friday Agreement. The idea was to replace the old “zero-sum” approach to Northern Ireland politics — if the other side are gaining; we must be losing — with one based on tolerance and mutual respect.

That approach is shown in the agreement’s shared identity clause, affirming the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose.

This idea of a shared birthright poses questions about eligibility for Irish national teams and, more broadly, our perception of an Irish sporting identity.

Rory McIlroy’s indecision as to whom he might represent at the 2016 Rio Olympics was, for example, widely criticised at the time.

McIlroy did himself no favours: from his barely credible Zika virus excuse; to his later more honest assessment that golf at the Olympics just wasn’t his thing.

Maybe, however, what McIlroy was really saying was that nationalism — Irish, British or both — just wasn’t his thing.

The Good Friday Agreement’s impact on sport again came to the fore in a recent spat between Michael O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s football manager, and the Republic’s manager Martin O’Neill.

The background is a long-running sore between the IFA and the FAI over players from the North, who go through the IFA’s youth system, transferring allegiance to the Republic just prior to reaching senior representative level.

In a strictly legal sense, the players from the North are permitted to do this under Fifa regulations, which were tested at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in 2010.

That CAS case pitted the IFA and FAI against each other over the eligibility of Belfast-born Daniel Kearns, then playing with Dundalk, now with Limerick FC.

Kearns represented Northern Ireland in European U17 Championship qualifiers in 2008 but switched to the Republic in 2010.

The Irish senior team’s Euro 2008 campaign featured Derry-born Darron Gibson, while in 2010 he was followed by fellow Derry man Shane Duffy who opted to play for the Republic having played international football for Northern Ireland from U16 to U21 level. The IFA, fearing that the floodgates would open on players from a nationalist background declaring for the Republic, appealed to CAS but lost.

The recent O’Neill spat has revived the matter and particularly Michael O’Neill’s suggestion that young catholic players are being targeted by the FAI.

As ever with the North, it’s what is unsaid is the key.

By using the term ‘catholic’ (he since retreated from its use), what Michael O’Neill appears to have been trying to say is that if the FAI continues its policy, the Northern Ireland football team will become exclusively representative of only one — the protestant — side of the community.

The IFA’s accusation is that the FAI are, in football’s vernacular, “tapping up” young players from a nationalist background and that the FAI are acting outside the spirit of Fifa’s laws.

Michael O’Neill has also hinted that the FAI is acting in a self-interested manner as many of the players prompted to declared for the Republic are promptly discarded at senior international level — Danny Kearns is an example, as is Partick Thistle’s Danny Devine, another Belfast boy who Michael O’Neill said he would have picked for Euro 2016.

The FAI have maintained a stony silence on the matter as it is clear that the letter of Fifa law, upheld at CAS, is on their side.

Legalities will however never adequately explain why James McLean has only ever wanted to play for the Republic and why his club teammate Jonny Evans would never have wanted to follow him South.

Moreover, the legalities on player eligibility do not come near explaining how far IFA and FAI relations have come since that hateful, spiteful night in November 1993 at Windsor Park when Alan McLoughlin’s equaliser sent the Republic to the 1994 World Cup.

That game was played barely a month after the Shankill Road bombing and the Greysteel massacre.

It will take a while yet before the past becomes a foreign country in Northern Ireland; for now, it remains present and deeply local.

Returning to sport, Northern Ireland’s first gold at the Commonwealth Games was delivered by gymnast Rhys McClenaghan.

McClenaghan defeated the reigning Olympic Champion, England’s Max Whitlock, to win gold in the pommel horse.

The Good Friday Agreement is one year older than McClenaghan who first came onto the scene in 2016 when he won silver for Ireland at the European Junior Championships and bronze at the British Gymnastics Championships pommel final behind Louis Smith and Whitlock.

British or Irish or both, he is one to watch out for at the Tokyo Olympics Games in 2020.

Whether he likes it or not, McClenaghan will likely be met by a bevvy of politicians on his return to Northern Ireland.

The absence of an Assembly in Belfast is adversely affecting funding in many areas in the North — health, education, social services, and sport.

When the Commonwealth Games hosted a meeting of its sports ministers at the Gold Coast last week to discuss the benefits of investing in sport, no Northern Ireland minister was present.

The current lot of NI politicians were once again missing when it mattered most.

Finally, leading out Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was Caroline O’Hanlon.

O’Hanlon is the captain of the NI netball team. The Armagh native has played Gaelic football for her county with distinction for a number of years.

The netball arena has been packed from the very start of the Commonwealth Games — the Australians are favourite for the gold.

Northern Ireland were first up to play the hosts. The arena is near the CAS office where I am ‘working’ as the CAS arbitrator for the Games, so I went along.

Before the game started, the hyperventilating stadium announcer interviewed random members of the crowd.

It usually ended with someone grabbing the microphone and screaming “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi”. You know the drill.

The announcer eventually happened upon a woman from Northern Ireland.

After the announcer’s obligatory comment about the Irish accent — the Australians think of themselves as the only English-speaking country in the world not to have an accent — the woman unexpectantly took the microphone.

She spoke about how proud she was of her neighbour Caroline O’Hanlon, a doctor and woman from Armagh.

She spoke of how proud she was of all the NI netball team battling as amateurs against the world’s best. She told the stadium that, regardless of the result, each and every one of the NI team were role models.

In a month when we have heard and seen Irish sportsmen North and South behave atrociously, it was a right and proper reminder of what sport is and can be.

After the women spoke, one of the Commonwealth Games netball officials leaned across and reminded me, jokingly, that I still had to stay neutral for the entire game.

And all I could say, in my best Belfast accent, was: “Neutral? After that? Aye right.” 

Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne an Adjunct Prof at the University of Limerick



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