Over the weekend, Northern Ireland’s international football manager, Michael O’Neill, made some forthright remarks about the Republic’s policy of poaching young footballers from our underage teams.
O’Neill alleges that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), which governs the game in the south, pursues “one type of player: Catholic”.
“You could argue that’s sectarian in terms of your recruitment”, he concluded.
As an example, the manager cited Sunderland midfielder, Paddy McNair.
“The (FAI) thought Paddy must be a Catholic and when they found out he was a Protestant, they stayed away from it”.
None of this will surprise Northern Ireland fans, who for years have watched the Republic target players from the IFA’s youth teams, so long as they were perceived to belong to one side of the community.
The only thing that might cause them some confusion is the timing of O’Neill’s remarks.
There have actually been fewer high profile cases of poaching since Northern Ireland’s performances improved, with the team qualifying for Euro 2016 and a World Cup play-off.
The Republic has been consistently placed lower in FIFA’s world rankings.
The answer is probably to be found in the manager’s comments about Paul Smyth, an under 21 international who has travelled with the senior squad to get experience and may soon make his full Northern Ireland debut.
O’Neill down played the risk of Smyth defecting, but he clearly believes that the FAI wants to recruit the QPR forward.
Michael O’Neill is already popular with fans, having led Northern Ireland to success on the field and turned down Scotland to sign a lengthy contract with the Irish Football Association (IFA).
His blunt comments about player poaching can only enhance his reputation.
Too often there seems to have been little resistance to the FAI’s predatory tactics, but O’Neill is prepared to describe the association as ‘unscrupulous’.
“There’s no consultation: the Republic just go and weasel away and take the player”, he asserts.
Yet O’Neill’s employers, the Irish FA, continue to cooperate at various levels with the FAI and they’ve even accepted an invitation to play a senior friendly match in Dublin this November.
That seems a bizarre way to treat an organisation that is an ongoing threat to the very existence of international football here.
Very many supporters boycotted the last “Irish derby”, which took place in the Aviva Stadium back in 2011.
At that time, it had just emerged that the Republic was trying to lure Shane Ferguson, who is now an established Northern Ireland regular, into its ranks.
Ferguson went on to represent his country at the European Championships in France, while most players who defect never win a senior international cap.
This shameless sectarian poaching has now been going on unchecked for years.
It’s great to hear Michael O’Neill speak out so clearly against the FAI’s tactics, but the IFA could send out a far more powerful message by pulling out of the friendly immediately.
• Owen Polley is a public policy consultant and commentator. His blog is at threethousandversts.blogspot.com/