Former Derry City and current Sunderland player, James McClean

It’s an issue that was seemingly resolved in the summer of 2010, but the practice of Irish nationals playing for the Irish national team (that is, the FAI) amazingly continues to incite a capricious whirlwind of hysterical furore.

Over a year later and there still exists a hardcore element of the Northern Ireland support who maintain that, somehow, FIFA are acting contrary to their own rules and mindlessly facilitating a so-called “loop-hole”, despite the numerous clarifications that have since surfaced. The Belfast Telegraph, known to be extremely sympathetic to the IFA’s cause, is possibly one of the chief offenders in this regard, continuously peddling myths and misinformation about the “eligibility row”. It is simply perturbing to think that such ignorance prevails in a period where information is so readily available. These ignorant hacks could do everyone a favour and educate themselves by having a read of Daniel Collins’ extensive article, Player Eligibility in the Context of Ireland. Or, if their political sensibilities are easily upset, they could simply read over the report issued by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the aftermath of the IFA -v- Daniel Kearns case. It’s obvious that many have not.

For some, while the issue of eligibility is settled, the idea that the “flow” needs to be “stemmed” is beginning to emerge. The IFA has employed former Northern Ireland international, Gerry Armstrong, as a kind of pastoral officer (humorously titled “Elite Player Mentor”) whose objective is to dissuade potential “defectors”. Armstrong is said to come from a nationalist background, but he has been vocal in his support of the IFA.

“If a player wants to play for the Republic of Ireland then that is his view and he’s entitled to it but we need to cast the net wide and make sure players feel a sense of belonging with Northern Ireland… Perhaps peer pressure is influencing them but we need to talk to them, understand why they are thinking the way they are and encourage them that they can wear the Northern Ireland shirt with pride.”

While Armstrong is something of a cult hero among Northern Ireland supporters, having played 63 times, scoring 13 goals, he is generally not held in the same esteem by those who have grown up solely supporting the Republic of Ireland, so it will be interesting to see how he is received when he incredulously enquires why the likes of Shane Duffy, Darron Gibson and James McClean would rather play for their country.
It is insulting to read articles in the media of the southern state advocating division and the effective exclusion of Irish nationals from playing for the Irish national team. Paul Rowan for example, who has covered the “eligibility row” in great detail, recently wrote of how “more must be done to stem the flow of players from the North to the Republic”, claiming that the likes of Martin O’Neill, Mal Donaghy and Pat Jennings (all of whom are brazenly assumed to be Catholics) played for Northern Ireland without objection (Sunday Times, A division of loyalty, 14.08.11). Of course, how true that is, is open to debate; players are entirely able to have enjoyed their experience but at the same time to have held certain reservations.
There is no doubting that the whole saga has produced a lifetime of drama. However, the outcome of the IFA -v- Daniel Kearns CAS case has, after all these years, provided a degree of finality that should be respected.  Nobody likes a sore loser, so the IFA and its fans should leave the bitterness to lemons and get on with things.

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