Alliance gave weight to divisive SDLP plan for joint football reception

There has been a freeze on the non-domestic rate for the last three years at Belfast City Council
There has been a freeze on the non-domestic rate for the last three years at Belfast City Council

On Tuesday Belfast City council agreed to invite both the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland football teams to a reception at the City Hall. 

The joint event is a mischievous idea, conceived by SDLP councillor, Declan Boyle, which masquerades as an attempt to encourage reconciliation, but actually undermines efforts to ensure our national football team is inclusive.

Owen Polley

Owen Polley

Northern Ireland’s footballers and their supporters can look forward to 2016 with optimism.  Under Michael O’Neill, the team qualified for a major championship for the first time since 1986, topping its group. 

The Irish Football Association (IFA), which organises football here, is ensuring that players and thousands of fans have a great experience next summer, at Euro 2016 in France. 

Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland team, governed by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), eventually qualified too, finishing third in its group. 

In theory celebrating both teams’ achievements with a reception may seem harmless. However, the idea of staging such an event at City Hall is freighted with political significance, as the SDLP knows very well. 

The IFA and FAI are engaged in a long dispute over the Republic ‘poaching’ Catholic players from Northern Ireland’s youth setup, courtesy of an obscure FIFA regulation. 

The two organisations clashed at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland, which confirmed that the FAI was operating within the rules, but acknowledged that an “unfair ‘one-way situation’” existed.

FIFA’s statutes and the CAS ruling  made it clear that the players’ eligibility rested on their entitlement to citizenship of the Republic of Ireland, but politicians distorted the arguments to imply that the Good Friday Agreement created a ‘right’ to play for either team or even that the FAI had jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. 

The SDLP’s motion was a transparent attempt to place the Republic of Ireland team on an equal footing with the Northern Ireland team, in our capital city, Belfast.  It had very little to do with reconciliation or community relations and everything to do with promoting the party’s nationalist ideals. 

It was designed to provoke a hostile reaction from unionist parties, which could then be portrayed as grudging and unreasonable. 

And the SDLP’s scheming went perfectly. The motion sewed discord among councillors but it was carried, thanks to votes from Alliance, who hold the balance of power on the council.

That party’s stance is ironic, because its policies are supposed to be based on the notion that Northern Ireland and Northern Irishness can bind British and Irish, unionist and nationalist, together.

Instead, Alliance backed a proposal which undermined the idea that N.Ireland’s teams or institutions are for everyone, implying instead that ‘equality’ means according teams or institutions from the Republic the same status in this jurisdiction. 

They endorsed a segregationist, nationalist outlook, while at the same time joining the SDLP and Sinn Fein to deliver a small and petty blow to Northern Ireland football and the Northern Irish identity.

• Owen Polley is a freelance writer and policy consultant. This article first appeared on his blog Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness