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Debate: Uniting North and South Irish football teams

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Should the football teams of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unite?

Background and context

Two countries have territory on the island of Ireland (Eire). The Republic of Ireland covers 26 of Ireland’s traditional 32 counties, becoming independent of British rule in 1921. At that time the more protestant-dominated six counties of Ulster, in the North-East of the island, remained part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Under British rule one Irish Football Association covered the whole island, but since 1921 there have been two separate bodies, each with its own leagues and international team. The idea of an All-Ireland football team has been discussed for some time, and gained prominence when it was promoted by the late George Best, Northern Ireland’s greatest ever player. The creation of a united Ireland football team is the declared policy of the SDLP and the Irish Green Party, and opposed by the Ulster Unionists in the north.

Contents

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The combined team would be better than the two existing ones

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Yes

Combining the talents of North and South will improve the team. Both nations are performing weakly at present. Historically, Northern Ireland have had one or two stand-out players surrounded by poor performers, whilst the Republic’s team is normally quite solid but lacking quality in depth and missing star players. Putting the best of both teams together would greatly enhance Ireland’s chances of reaching the final stages of international competitions, and even of winning. And of course the players will be able to get along - most of them already play together for English and Scottish club sides. Again by way of comparison, the Irish rugby team would be much weaker if split.

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No

Both nations do better than the proposition are suggesting: each has qualified for the World Cup three times. Not a bad showing. Combining the English and Scottish teams would probably lead to a better squad. But nobody would dream of doing it. Why? Because they’re different nations. So it is here, too. Furthermore, the idea that a united team will perform better than the two teams currently do is based on the players getting along. What if the things that divide them mean that they don’t? Then instead of two teams turning in erratic performances including some successes, there’s only one team, and it’s a flop!

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It would be a symbol of fellowship

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Yes

This would be a tremendous symbol of fellowship. It would follow the lead of Rugby Union, in which Ireland has only one team and players from Ulster (Northern Ireland) play alongside those from the Republic, regardless of religion or whether they’re from the North or South. Sport can be a tool of peace and soccer is tremendously popular on both sides of the border. Seeing their heroes play alongside those from “over the border” will shape the attitudes of the young and help shake off inherited prejudices. This move could do more to revive the peace process than any negotiation or diplomacy.

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No

Many people don’t feel that fellowship. You can’t force commonality and you shouldn’t try. Unionists will view this as nationalism by the populist back door. That’s a national border around the province, and such borders determine soccer teams everywhere. Why should Ireland be any different? Sport in the island of Ireland is politicized enough as it is and is used on both sides of the border as a sparking point for ugly nationalism – doing this can only make it worse.

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The long term benefits outweigh the short-term problems caused by prejudice among potential participants

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Yes

Of course there’s a lot of rivalry now: it’s always that way with neighbours. You can’t oppose a plan based on future benefit by pointing to current problems – we know they exist. The benefits of this plan are long term and depend on management and organisers having the vision to overcome short term prejudices.

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No

This might be a good idea if there were some level of support in one part of the island for the other side’s team when playing third parties. The truth is the opposite. Many Ulstermen cheer for anyone playing the Republic, and vice versa.

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There would be no room for prejudice in team selections

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Yes

There will be a huge amount of attention paid to who gets picked: the idea that prejudice rather than ability will determine things is absurd, particularly in the professional coaching and playing era. As for the chance that players will act up after the change: international players will buckle down sharpish or lose their high-status positions at the top of their profession. The idea that players would rather squabble than perform at their peak is absurd – or rather, is no more absurd in an all-Ireland context than it is anywhere else. Of course there are preening prima donnas – but they always find excuses to pout. We don’t base big choices like this on the potential for sulking.

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No

It is claimed by some that the management in the Irish rugby union establishment favour players from the Republic and marginalise Ulstermen. That squad, supposedly the model of success, is not without its tensions. How much more will that be the case if the players moved into a team are used to working in a totally different setup, and have tribal loyalties fundamentally opposed to that of half their new team? Disputes about selection could make relations between the two parts of the island worse rather than better.

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It would give good players a better chance to shine

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Yes

The talent pool in the island of Ireland is too small to be split up as it is now. Players in Ulster, particularly, are deprived of a chance to shine: moreover, their island is deprived of a chance to utilise their talents.

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No

The Republic of Ireland has a population of 6 million. That’s only 4 million short of Greece’s 10 million, and Greece managed to win Euro 2004. The Republic of Ireland funds sport more than the north does. Improving organisationally with better youth coaching and grass-roots football may be the answer, rather than trying to jam two countries together. If you don’t improve underlying problems, then they’ll continue whether you combine the teams or not.

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Winning is the important thing - and this will result in more victories

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Yes

The best players are more important than worse ones. International football isn’t about equality handouts, it’s about winning. Players in both nations would (or should) want to play in successful sides. The focus should be on helping the best of Irish players to excel. It’s true that some journeymen will lose out: but seen another way, isn’t it more the case that for a while, ethnic strife let some weak players get international game time, a situation now being put right?

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No

For every George Best, there’s a whole squad’s worth of players who won’t get to play at a national level any more. Narrowing the opportunities available to players to perform in an international side is against their interests. In particular, it’s likely that the squad would be mostly Republic players and a couple of Ulstermen – the plan simply denies a playing population that currently has its own full team of the chance of any international games.

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The lack of high-quality local leagues is not an issue

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Yes

Club football has been an international game for fifty years. National coaches don’t find it difficult to pick players who compete in other national leagues. The best Brazilian footballers play for clubs all over the world, yet they don’t have any trouble putting selecting a great team. Most of the Irish players, from north or south, play for clubs in England and Scotland, so comparing their abilities is actually quite easy.

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No

It’s easier to pick a team when there’s a league dedicated to the area from which you are drawing players. That’s the case right now in Northern Ireland and the Republic. The players can be judged more easily against one another and administration is easier because it’s run by one body.

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Existing post-holders are less important than getting the right people. Job-preservation for officials is not a good reason not to do something

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Yes

As to which administrative body would get the job of running the Ireland team, who cares? This debate is about a big, broad principle – the constitution of the football administration is not important. It could even lead to the creation of a new body to run the Ireland team, with the two existing bodies continuing to run the domestic leagues.

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No

There are currently two administrative bodies in the island of Ireland with a history of bad feeling – which will get the job of running the Ireland team? Whichever is chosen, the other is sure to adopt spoiler tactics – and will probably appeal to the nationalistic tendencies your plan intends to minimise. Doesn’t the collapse of the campaign for an All-Ireland league show the absurdity of the idea of an All-Ireland team?

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Yes

It's one island with a distinct identity. The Irish rugby team has created a precedent showing that International sports teams don't have to map to political boundaries. On an island with sectarian divisions and a violent history, creating an entity that people can unite around can only be a good thing. Combining is likely to lead to more success on the field and it will be more economically viable.

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No

These are two distinct political entities and there isn't sufficient cultural convergence between the two traditions in Northern Ireland to justify this. Inevitably, the northern Protestant minority will be marginalised and their identity will be submerged. Politically, this is a thorny issue for Ulster Unionists. There is no direct correlation between the size of a nation and it's success on the field. It is possible that both the Republic and Northern Ireland are performing as well as any united Ireland team would do.


Usually it is good players that win matches not political entities. In the past Ireland would have undoubtedly tasted success with a single team and the opportunity to play with the best available, confidence would soar. Jennings, Best, o Neill, Brady, keane etc., this must happen. Let it happen, lets win matches. Politics is all rubbish, its rich people helping rich people, forget it, the 'flags' are their control over people.

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