On 4th March 2011, the Belfast Telegraph saw fit to run several stories on the much publicized disagreement (popularly dubbed the ‘Eligibility Row’) between the Irish Football Association and FIFA along with the Football Association of Ireland. There was, it seemed, no apparent catalyst for this sudden flurry of articles, as it was a dispute that was supposedly settled in the Summer of 2010 when the IFA foolishly took the FAI and FIFA to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, and lost. Indeed, they lost emphatically so, and it was a foregone conclusion for all, except the IFA.
One article, by Stuart McKinley, was entitled ‘Northern Ireland anger as Republic pick Celtic’s George’. Paul George, who had previously represented the IFA schoolboys, opted to declare for the FAI several months ago and the tabloid newspaper the Irish Star covered the story at the time. Around that time, it was Derry-born Shane Duffy and Belfast-born Daniel Kearns who dominated the headlines with their decision to change association, so perhaps that is why the younger, more obscure, Paul George slipped under the Belfast Telegraph’s radar. Some days after McKinley‘s article was published, the FAI under-17 manager John Morling announced a squad which included George. Evidently, it was this relatively minor, and I hasten to add, completely legitimate, event which sparked ‘anger’ in the Belfast Telegraph headquarters. Indeed, this supposed ‘anger’ seems to have been fairly restricted to the employees of Belfast Telegraph, because there was very little, if any, reaction elsewhere.
McKinley has consistently shown himself to be rather lazy in his reporting of the ‘Eligibility Row’. Although FIFA’s statutes governing national team eligibility have been repeatedly and painstakingly explained, with the IFA’s reading of them dismissed as incorrect, McKinley continues to trot out the same old ignorance in his articles – a strange thing indeed. For example, in his most recent article, McKinley erroneously writes:
The world governing body gave the FAI the green light to cherry pick players born in Northern Ireland, despite FIFA’s own statutes dictating that either a player himself, one of his parents or a grandparent must be born on the ‘territory of the relevant association’ in order to play for that country.
One might be forgiven, considering the unexpected nature of the articles, for thinking that such misleading reportage was part of a deliberate attempt to ensure that the supposedly settled issue remains an ongoing one, plaguing Irish football. Certainly, it might even appear, to those of a more cynical hue, that the Belfast Telegraph was shamelessly trying to create an escalation of tension before the upcoming Carling Nations Cup fixture between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland in May. It is, of course, difficult to be sure. Nevertheless, what is sure is that the decision of an Irish national to play for the Football Association of Ireland is not particularly newsworthy stuff, especially now that the matter has finally been resolved by the highest known authority. To persist with the issue at this stage is to flog the proverbial dead horse.
Trevor Ringland also had an opinion piece printed on the same day, presumably to complement McKinley’s flimsy article. Ringland’s piece boldly asserts the view that the FAI ‘are in danger of making Northern Ireland a Protestant team – instead of a mixed team – by taking away these young players’ – a staggeringly ludicrous claim without foundation in reality. Indeed, there is absolutely no indication or developing trend which points to the conclusion of an exclusively Protestant Northern Ireland team. The FAI have been selecting northern-born Irish nationals since the mid-1990s (Belfast-man Ger Crossley and Derry-man, Mark McKeever, for example) and in 2011, we still see a ‘mixed’ Northern Ireland team. Ringland, who is a former Ireland rugby star and unionist politician, is carelessly placing the blame on the FAI for what is simply the socio-political reality of Northern Ireland society. Ringland claims that the stance of the FAI ‘is undermining the good work of so many others’ in relation to football in Northern Ireland. One wonders that, when Ringland refers to ‘good work of so many others’, does he mean the continued use of ‘God Save the Queen’ as an anthem by the IFA? Or the insistence on using an unofficial, divisive flag to represent the team? It is not the FAI who is in danger of making Northern Ireland a Protestant team, it is the IFA.
Ringland’s understanding of the situation contradicts his normally liberal attitude. In fact, one could argue that Ringland misunderstands the whole scenario. His ’initial reaction’ demonstrates a fundamental ignorance:
Extreme disappointment would be my initial reaction to this latest development. It’s like an Ulster player deciding to switch to Munster or a Down player deciding to switch to Tyrone.
Ringland’s analogy is applicable only in the sense that the players in question have made a switch to a team, that, only to those like Ringland, is perceived to be a rival; for the players in question however, unlike Ringland, the FAI team represents a natural choice of national team. In the spirit of progress and in appreciation of identity, this is a fact that must be respected.
I’ll conclude with what I deem to be a rather interesting observation. For one reason or another, the Belfast Telegraph did not include an alternative viewpoint on the matter. With articles accusing the FAI of strengthening social division, the lack of balanced viewpoints is disappointing, for, while the newspaper is recognised as moderately unionist in political alignment, it would surely be in the interest of proper integration to offer a ‘mixed’ view.