Working towards Irish Unity




FAI: Start scouting players in the six counties

This week the BBC asked First Minister Michelle O’Neill if she was prepared to attend a Northern Ireland match. “Of course, I’m happy to do so,”she replied. The BBC felt no need to ask the Deputy First Minister if she would attend a Republic of Ireland game. In football parlance it was Parity of esteem nil, Unionist narrative, one. So pervasive and deep rooted is the unionist media narrative in reportage it passes for normality. Yet marginalisation of the Irish Nationalists’ aspiration by the North of Ireland media is anything but normal or acceptable and should be challenged at every turn.

25 years after the GFA it’s time that unionist Ministers were asked long overdue questions. For example, would they welcome the FAI establishing a scouting network in the six counties so talented youngsters can avail of a pathway towards the Republic squad should they choose? If Michelle O’Neill was asked about the NI team would a balanced media not ask Emma Little-Pengelly if she intends to watch the Republic play who are supported by the vast majority of nationalists?

Many young players particularly from a Nationalist background would opt for The Aviva over Windsor if offered a career path. Players from a Nationalist background have already chosen to play for the Republic like James McClean, Shane Duffy, Darron Gibson and Mark Sykes, the first Belfast born player to represent the Republic since Jackie Vernon and Jimmy McAlinden in 1946. But they have done so due to great personal effort and perseverance rather than there being a conveyor belt system in place that made their path simple.

Unfortunately six county players have faced obstacles from Dublin as well as Belfast when opting for the Republic. Former manager Brian Kerr openly admitted that he tried to make life difficult for Northern players who tried to switch to the South. In his partitionist mindset a player born in the 6 counties should be playing for Northern Ireland and not the Republic.

In 2010 the Irish Football Association (Northern Ireland) took a case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland to deny Larne forward Daniel Kearns aged 18 at the time the chance to pursue an international career with the Republic of Ireland rather than Northern Ireland. The Swiss authority ruled that Kearns was indeed able to make the switch as he possessed an Irish passport. Under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, anyone from Northern Ireland could apply for an Irish passport and hence was able to play for the Republic. Of course everyone knew this was the case but it didn’t stop an arrogant IFA pursuing the case which if successful would have undermined the GFA.

That Irish Football Association (IFA) sense of entitlement reared its head again in 2018. Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill accused Republic of Ireland soccer chiefs of targeting young Catholics from the North. The Irish News reported that, “Michael O’Neill expressed annoyance that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) continues to recruit potential players perceived to be from a nationalist background”. The myopic failure to respect the fact that half the population of the Northern partitioned part of Ireland have every right to consider themselves Irish and not British, to hold an Irish passport and to support or choose to play for the Republic of Ireland was neither accepted nor respected by Michael O’Neill or the IFA. Today, equality of respect for those who wish to watch or play for the Republic needs to be made explicit.

Parity of respect should also mean an end to placing obstacles in the way of those who wish to watch the Republic on TV by no longer Geo-blocking Republic games in the North. It requires an end to any assumption or sense of entitlement that Northern Ireland has ownership or first pick of players born in the North. The GFA makes this clear. It’s not just the IFA and the Northern Ireland manager who must adjust to the new reality. It is also the FAI and the manager of the Republic also, who must seize the initiative in recruiting Northern players without delay or reservation.

For too long when a young player from the North wished to play for the Republic they had to be proactive, stick their head above the parapet and do the heavy lifting like Daniel Kearns. The Republic has no official scouting system in the six counties at any age level. Along the border in areas like Strabane, Derry and Newry there are few brilliant individuals who of their own accord informally scout male and female talent under the radar and notify their FAI contacts. But this currently occurs on an ad hoc, unofficial basis, not officially sanctioned in Dublin.

The Republic has no scouting system in the North in part because of a partitionist mindset. Unofficially and psychologically the North is perceived as forbidden territory by the FAI. The IFA make clear (unofficially) that Republic scouts are not welcome in the six counties, on IFA property or at games of any age level under their jurisdiction. But the world has changed and the North has changed. It’s time for football North and South to change and catch up with the new reality. Nationalists are no longer second-class citizens. If young people opt into the Republic youth system then that’s their right.Those who wish to opt for the Republic should have no obstacles placed in their way and have a clear pathway available. Officials in the FAI need to grow a pair and establish a scouting and youth Academy system in the North whether the IFA like it or not. The IFA needs to fully embrace the spirit of the GFA as well as the letter of the law. This means acceptance of the establishment of a scouting and Academy of Excellence feeder system into the Republic of Ireland youth and senior football teams as well as to the Northern Ireland teams.

At present that scouting system route into the Republic team does not exist and it is young players from a nationalist background who lose out and pay the price in a number of ways. For the most talented young footballers the way to get noticed is in the youth levels of a national team. As the Republic don’t actively scout in the North, the Northern Ireland team is almost always their sole shop window. When Northern Ireland officials approach some youngsters from strongly nationalist or republican families they refuse to play for them because of its association with Britishness and British anthem etc. The price paid is that some young players never get the chance to showcase their footballing talents in front of scouts from major clubs, some of whom only turn up only for international games at youth team level, thus limiting their chance of making it to a major club.

Some republican-minded parents through gritted teeth allow their kids to play for Northern Ireland at under-age level because they view it as the only real platform available for their young one to showcase their ability in front of scouts from other leagues. This is an unpalatable dilemma they won’t have to face once the FAI establishes an official scouting system in the North.

When the football geniuses of the future are playing for Cliftonville, New Hill, Belfast Celtic, CSP, Newington, Immaculata or Sion Swifts let there be both Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland scouts vying for their signature. Only then will the partitionist mindset be abolished from football north and south. Of course further down the line the dream scenario would be for one all Ireland team, but that’s a conversation for another day.