Football Eligibility: An Issue for the Misinformed and Those Seeking to Deny National Rights?

The matter of the eligibility of northern-born Irish nationals to play for the Football Association of Ireland was raised again recently at a panel discussion on sport and reconciliation during the 50th plenary session of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA). It was co-chaired by Frank Feighan of Fine Gael, who told us that the “trend… deserves careful consideration”.

This dispute has long been resolved, however, with football’s governing body, FIFA, providing ample clarification as to the correct application of their rules on eligibility (currently articles 5-8 of the Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes) after thorough consideration up until the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled conclusively on the matter in 2011 and in rejection of the Irish Football Association’s vindictive and restrictive position at the time in the case of CAS 2010/A/2071, IFA v/ FAI, Kearns & FIFA.

Interestingly, the IFA had expressed acceptance of the situation whereby Irish nationals from the north could opt for the FAI after a meeting between Jim Boyce of the IFA and Bernard O’Byrne of the FAI in 1999. By that time, lower-profile players like Derry-born Mark McKeever and Belfast-born Ger Crossley had opted for the FAI, and, I might add, before the passing of the Good Friday Agreement (which is often cited in error as having paved the way in principle for the present situation). The association only deviated from that position in 2007 after higher-profile players like Darron Gibson and Marc Wilson opted for the FAI.

A total of seven players have formally effected a switch between the IFA and FAI since the right to switch once to another association for whom a player is eligible was introduced universally by FIFA in 2004. Prior to this, players who represented an association at any level became irrevocably cap-tied. The IFA have also benefitted from the introduction of a right for players to switch once; Alex Bruce formally switched from the FAI to the IFA and is not the only case of a player switching to the IFA from another association.

Participants and attendees at the discussion such as Trevor Ringland, Sammy Douglas of the DUP and Frank Feighan all repeated common misunderstandings in support of their shared preference for northern-born players to play for Northern Ireland.

Ringland told us that the rules were not being applied correctly whilst Douglas told us that it was a matter of “poaching”, as if to deny the players concerned of their agency. The reality is that the FAI legitimately facilitate fully-eligible Irish nationals who are willing and good enough to play for their country.

Feighan told us there was “a very real danger that both international football teams on the island might come to represent almost exclusively Nationalist and Unionist communities”. The respective teams broadly represent different traditions already as a result of the socio-political reality in the north.

It is not because of the eligibility issue that Irish nationals in the north identify with the FAI. The reason they support and declare for the Republic of Ireland football team is because they identify with the independent Irish national identity that is officially channelled through independent Ireland and, in turn, the FAI.

If Feighan is referring to the composition of the Northern Ireland team possibly becoming all-unionist or all-Protestant, this is simply baseless scaremongering. Players from Catholic and nationalist backgrounds (many, like Niall McGinn, who openly support the Republic of Ireland) continue to play for IFA teams for various reasons.

In fact, Claire Adams informed us that “the number of young Catholics playing in [the IFA’s] elite squads majorly outnumbers those in previous years”.

Since the Kearns case, the IFA have adopted a refreshing proactive and forward-looking approach whereby they now acknowledge that player choice is fundamental to this matter. At the BIPA panel discussion, Claire Adams of the IFA stated:

We want to develop our young players. We have a responsibility to show them what Northern Irish football wants to do and where we want to go. Michael O’Neill, since he’s come into the [managerial] post, has made great efforts in moving right across the country to talk to young people, to explain what Northern Ireland want to do with their football – what the IFA want to do – but I think we really need to show them what we can offer. A lot of it does come down to personal choice, but, what I would say is, the Irish FA’s focus right now is to develop the best players and the best people that we can and, hopefully, that will be enough for them to decide to stay on with us.

Rather than harbouring hopes of restricting the choice of dual citizens, it is clear that the IFA are now open to the choice these players have and see it as the association’s responsibility to convince eligible players that their best interests lie with them.

For a more detailed analysis of the discussion on the eligibility matter at the BIPA, see here and here.

Daniel Collins is a Manchester-based writer originally from the north-west of Ireland. Matters relating to sport, politics, culture and identity particularly interest him.

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