The prospect of the Republic’s football team attending a civic reception in Belfast has not been ruled out, a spokesman for the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) has said.
On Friday, a Belfast City Council committee voted in favour of hosting a joint civic reception, along with Northern Ireland, to mark both teams’ qualification for Euro 2016.
Although the FAI is aware of strong unionist opposition to their team’s possible attendance, a FAI spokesman said that any planned tribute would be discussed with a view to attending – but only after an official invitation is received.
“Any tribute event would of course always be considered by the FAI but, as of now, we have not received any formal notification about this event,” he told the News Letter.
Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers said it was inappropriate to invite the Republic while its football association persisted in the “disgraceful” poaching of Northern Ireland-born players to play for Martin O’Neill’s team.
Friday’s committee vote is almost certain to be ratified at a meeting of the full council on January 5.
The SDLP’s Declan Boyle had originally proposed there should be a civic dinner for both football teams, but that proposal was amended to a less expensive civic reception. The dinner would have cost in the region of £20,000, whereas a civic reception would cost around £5,000. The SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Fein supported the amended proposal, having rejected an alternative which was supported by the DUP, Ulster Unionists and PUP.
That unionists’ alternative was that the Lord Mayor write a letter of congratulation to each of the three home nations – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – that qualified for France next year, as well as the Republic of Ireland, but that was rejected by the majority of the committee.
Mr Rodgers said there was enough support for the vote to be carried in January, but added: “We will just have to wait and see if the invitation is accepted or not. The Northern Ireland team has already received a civic reception from the City Council and this would be a second one.
“I don’t have anything against the Republic of Ireland, but I made the point that the Republic, through the Football Association of Ireland, has taken players who should have been playing for the country they were born in, in other words Northern Ireland, and that in itself is a disgrace. It doesn’t happen in any other country in the world, so why should it happen in Northern Ireland,” he said.
He added: “I am delighted that now there is a sizeable number of players of the Roman Catholic religion who are playing for Northern Ireland and are prepared to wear that jersey.
“But the reception may never happen because the teams are preparing for a number of friendlies, and the players will have commitments with their home clubs as well.”
Cllr Brian Kingston of the DUP said he regretted “that there is a clear political motive to this all-Ireland exercise,” and added: “Belfast City Council held a very successful and well-attended civic reception for the Northern Ireland team and management at City Hall in November.
“To ask them, the following month, to attend another civic reception makes us appear disorganised and reduces the significance of such events.”