Tomorrow night, Belfast City Council will vote on a motion which aims to mark with a reception the qualification of both Irish international football teams to the European Championships in France.
The development is an historic first. While the Republic of Ireland have now qualified for three Euro Finals (1988 and 2012 before now), this summer will represent the first time that fans of Northern Ireland will get to enjoy seeing their team play at this level.
Both teams have also qualified for three World Cups, but never before have both Irish teams qualified to the finals of the same international tournament.
A nice gesture, aimed at congratulating the two teams who, between them, earn the loyalties and support of the overwhelming majority of football fans in the north of Ireland. Dublin City Council has already voted in favour of a similar reception being held in the city.
Who’d have thought there’d be an issue?
Enter the PUP’s Billy Hutchinson.
According to the loyalist leader, a decision to invite the Republic of Ireland team (or let’s be honest, likely a representative few players and manager) to a Belfast City Hall reception could spark a return to loyalist protests a la the flag protest.
Here’s what the PUP leader had to say on the matter (courtesy of the Belfast Telegraph)
“I warned them over removing the flag, that it would lead to protests should they go down that road,” he said. “It will be the same again.”
I’m sure you’ll agree, an impressive piece of drum beating by the one-time senior UVF man and, surprisingly, the party’s candidate in North Belfast for the forthcoming Assembly election.
But Billy wasn’t finished.
No. Billy had more to say, this time about the prospect of the Derry-born James McClean being in attendance for the reception.
Again from the Belfast Telegraph:
In a reference to Republic of Ireland and West Bromwich Albion midfielder James McClean, the PUP leader said that Premiership players who refused to wear the poppy wouldn’t be welcome at City Hall.
When asked about his comments on James McClean, Mr Hutchinson said it was disgraceful that a Premiership player “earning £40,000 or £50,000 a week” for an English team then refused to wear a poppy.
Let’s dwell on that for a moment.
The leader of a loyalist political party, attracting a fraction of support from within the unionist community, is warning that a Derry-born footballer is not welcome at Belfast City Hall.
In and of itself, the comment is ignorant, arrogant and indeed wholly reflective of the ingrained sectarian supremacist mindset of the loyalist leader. After all, it is Billy’s party which competes with the DUP for the title of the party most closely associated with the Twaddell Camp and similarly futile campaign to return Belfast to a city where the Orange writ ruled supreme.
Firstly, Billy seems to not realise that, in a city with considerably more non-unionists than unionists (as reflected in successive council elections), the call to invite the Republic’s team to a formal civic reception is one that is beyond his capacity to prevent- at least in a democratic sense.
Hence Billy’s decision to threaten a return to the illegal flag protests that led directly to young working class protestants earning criminal records and led to further alienation within a working class protestant community crying out for responsible leadership.
The comment that anyone not wearing a poppy would not be welcome at Belfast City Hall is worth reflecting upon too, as it reveals the narrow sectarian vision of a party which, with no sense of irony, incorporates the term ‘progressive’ in its name.
But Billy is not alone.
Enter the Ulster Unionist Party’s Jim Rodgers.
Jim’s not happy.
Jim believes that the Republic of Ireland has “stolen many of our good young players” and that this should somehow serve as a reason to veto a reception for the team.
Jim is no stranger to controversy- witness his ‘No Pope in Belfast’ pitch from March 2014- but this remark reveals a mindset which is utterly contrary to any notion of a shared future.
Let’s be clear about this.
No football player has ever been ‘stolen’ from Northern Ireland by the Republic of Ireland, and arguing otherwise betrays a deeply disturbing mindset which seeks to claim ownership of people, ignoring the right of a player to represent the National side of choice.
I won’t revisit the now settled issue of player eligibility, but for those interested, Daniel Collins provides a comprehensive analysis of the issue in an Irish context here.
Ironically, the only modern player to have represented both Irish international teams at full international level is Alex Bruce, who left the Republic of Ireland to play for Northern Ireland after having represented the Republic in two friendly matches.
Similarly, the last time both Irish teams shared a pitch for an international fixture, only Johnny Gorman (representing Northern Ireland) had played previously at any level for the other Irish side.
You’ll note the reference to ‘modern’ player as, for decades after partition and the formation of a second Irish association (the FAI), many players continued to represent both Irish sides at international level, including Jimmy Dunne, who continues to hold the record for goals scored in consecutive games at the highest level of domestic football in England in spite of Jamie Vardy’s impressive run this season.
Given the numbers at Belfast City Hall, it is clear that a reception of some sort will be voted through tomorrow night. In which case, I’d like to suggest that the reception be held on March 13th.
Well, it was on that date in 1887 that the Irish international football team (there was only one back then) succeeded in winning their first ever match (at the 16th time of trying), defeating Wales 4-1.
The venue for that match was the then Oldpark Avenue home of Cliftonville Football Club, the ‘Cricky’ fields, currently being transformed into the first dedicated Gaelic football pitch in north Belfast as well as the site of the newly built Bunscoil Bheann Mhadagain (where is Tom Elliott anyway?)
Hope and history rhyming as the descendants of Canute lash angrily and ever vainly at the incoming tide.