If the debate surrounding FIFA eligibility rules in Ireland didn’t exist, I’d probably have very little else to write about, but the topic rears its head time and time again. This time, the DUP’s Dodds couple (Nigel and Diane) have raised their concern in different political fora. At Westminster recently, Nigel spoke of how there existed an “injustice” that needed to be addressed by the British and Irish governments. The “injustice” that Nigel refers to, of course, is the right that exists for Irish nationals born in Northern Ireland to play for or change to the representative teams of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
In referring to this right of choice, as facilitated by FIFA’s eligibility rules, as an “injustice”, Dodds reveals a lot about the level of respect and understanding he has for the identity his republican neighbours. While the FIFA eligibility rules have nothing to do with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (as is often erroneously reported), calls for this choice to be limited, or even removed, undoubtedly contravenes the spirit of tolerance and respect for identity that is contained therein. As Daniel Collins recently wrote in the Irish News, with regard to Diane Dodds’ similar comments at a sitting of the European Parliament, ‘[o]ver a decade on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, is it not long past the time that certain public servants should have acknowledged the undisputed legitimacy of the national identity of the largest minority community north of the border?’. Indeed it is long past the time.
Collins has invested a considerable amount of time and energy into matters surrounding the eligibility debate, paying particular attention to debunking the various myths and unfounded allegations that have arisen since the issue has come to the fore. His essay, ‘FIFA Player Eligibility in the Context of Ireland’ is arguably the best resource for those who wish to be educated in the matter and, unsurprisingly, his efforts have been met with derision among Northern Ireland fans, although, interestingly, to date, there has not been so much as one attempt at a rebuttal. In general, the arguments raised by Northern Ireland fans and pro-IFA figures, including Diane and Nigel Dodds, have all been emphatically debunked by Collins’ essay. For example, Mr Dodds paints a picture of the IFA suffering uniquely, but such is patently not the case:
“The rules are universal and no two countries in world football have an identical number of nationals available for potential selection from their respective player pools, so talk of an unfair advantage is also disingenuous. The FAI cannot call up Northern Ireland-born players who do not acknowledge or effect their birthright to Irish nationality. Ultimately, choice rests with the player.”
Nigel Dodds’ proposal, that the British and Irish governments convene a meeting to resolve a so-called “issue” is simply preposterous, especially when one considers the fact that the Irish FA (IFA) has already exhausted all avenues, only to be told by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) that they had, to borrow a phrase, no leg to stand on. Essentially, the CAS brought closure to the affair for all parties concerned after years of complaint on the part of the IFA. In light of this, it is quite baffling to hear unionist politicians sticking their oar in, presenting the situation as one in imperative need of resolution.
Regardless, a sizeable portion of the population of Northern Ireland simply does not recognise or identify with the IFA, for one reason or the other, and instead look favourably upon the FAI – such was the case well before northern born players began appearing for the FAI. Indeed, Sinn Féin, the largest republican party in Northern Ireland immediately issued a statement supporting the right of choice that currently exists, while in 2007, SDLP politician Pat Ramsey also defended the right of choice. Therefore, should this ridiculous notion be entertained, then it would simply stutter to an inevitable stalement.
In reality, the freedom of a northern-born Irish individual to represent the FAI rather than the IFA represents an injustice only to those whose secure sense of ‘Our Wee Country’ it upsets.