IT WOULD be "hugely sad" if FIFA eligibility guidelines led to Catholics opting to play for the Republic of Ireland football team and Protestants opting for Northern Ireland, Sports Minister Edwin Poots said today.
Speaking in the Assembly, Mr Poots said that throughout the darkest days of the troubles the Northern Ireland team had been made up of players from across the political and religious divides — something he said was under threat from a FIFA proposal.
There have been weeks of uncertainty over what the future holds for Northern Ireland's football team after FIFA announced its plan to allow any player born in Northern Ireland to play for the Republic.
FIFA's Executive Committee will decide on Saturday whether to ratify the plan, which would give anyone born on the island the right to play for either jurisdiction.
Mr Poots said he had written to FIFA lending his support to the Irish Football Association's position that players born in Northern Ireland should play international football for Northern Ireland.
He also confirmed that he would be holding an reception for the squad and has written to David Healy congratulation him on the "remarkable feat" of becoming top goal scorer in the European Championship qualifying matches.
Strangford MLA George Shannon, who represents David Healy's home town of Killyleagh, asked the minister: "Would you comment on the eligibility rules from FIFA which are seeking to dismantle the very process that got the team so far?"
Mr Poots responded: "Over the course of the troubles we have had players representing Northern Ireland from both sides of the political and religious divides — great players like Martin O'Neill, Pat Jennings and David Healy.
"It would be hugely sad if we were to go down the route of Catholics or Nationalists playing for the Republic and Protestants or Unionists playing for Northern Ireland