BY PAUL BREEN

Sometimes, even the wildest of social media rumours can touch on deeper more uncomfortable truths. If we were to believe some of the stories circulating on fans’ forums and Twitter accounts these past few days, Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is now trying to reverse the advances of the Good Friday Agreement. Over the weekend, a story surfaced that he had declared effective war on the “sectarian” tactic of the FAI allowing Northern Catholics to play for the Republic. More than that, he’d called for a ceasefire with Martin O’Neill in an effort to stop this.

One of the last times the O’Neills of Ulster fought with such ferocity in Ireland, they got heavily beaten by stronger opponents from across the water. Then they were all on the same side, but a superior squad of English forces had come to Ireland, managed by the ruthless Elizabeth, determined to get her ships through regardless of a hard land or soft sea border. Over the century that followed, many of the O’Neill dynasty left their homelands in the province of Ulster, which the victorious British then planted with Scottish settlers.

From then on, the north east of Ireland would always be different to the rest of the island. That is still the case today, where roughly half the population is Protestant and almost exclusively identifies as British. The other half is Catholic and mainly identifies as Irish. This then creates a problem when it comes to various aspects of culture, including sport. Thankfully, most games have avoided becoming tied up with politics. The Irish rugby team plays as one national unit, made up of players from the four provinces including Ulster which retains both an Irish and a British identity. Similar compromises and agreements have been reached in boxing which has largely been a working class and urban sport.

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Sadly, association football, has always been more of a problem. Ever since the Irish game’s great divorce in 1921, the island has had two football associations. Generally, they tended not to step on each other’s toes throughout the early decades, and even in the times of conflict, sport and politics rarely mixed. When Northern Ireland reached the 1982 World Cup, many of their players were Catholics who identified as Irish, and many people found no issue with supporting both ‘national’ sides on the island.

The nineties brought division as the teams found themselves in direct competition with one another. Because of various factors, Catholics began to support the Republic to a much greater extent. Firstly, Jack Charlton created a successful team composed of players who starred for English football’s giants – from Paul McGrath and Denis Irwin to Ray Houghton and John Aldridge. Jackie’s team had an appeal and a sexiness their northern counterparts couldn’t match. They had music and media behind them too, symbols of a state that was rapidly modernising, a far cry from the land that Houghton and Aldridge’s ancestors left behind.

Around the same time, elements of Northern Ireland’s support became more vociferous in their adherence to Ulster loyalism. This involved creating linkage between the Northern Ireland team and symbols associated with anti-Irishness. That culminated in death threats to Neil Lennon, which in turn created a drive on the part of the Northern Ireland Football Association to eliminate sectarianism. Despite these efforts though, the support base of the Northern Irish team remains largely Protestant and pro-British. At the same time, many Catholic players still pledge their allegiance to the Republic.

This has now culminated in rumours of a modern-day battle of the O’Neills, in which Michael was quoted as suggesting that Martin should take action to stop northern Catholics playing for the Republic. It was not though the suggestion of this that caused a storm because he is entitled to his opinion, and even has some strong justification for feeling aggrieved by the situation. It was the fact that he referred to the Republic’s tactics as being sectarian, which is a word most often associated with the North pre-1998. Those were the days before the Belfast Agreement was supposed to heal the wounds of the past and bring about a shared society.

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Unfortunately, twenty years later, that still hasn’t materialised and even if Michael O’Neill didn’t make these comments, it shows the level of division that still exists between the two main sides in Northern Ireland’s current culture war. Unionists and loyalists, who identify with Britain, feel threatened by the nationalist desire for equality, and angered at what they see as the increasing role of the Republic of Ireland in their wee country’s affairs. But the problem is not simply one of the Republic poaching gullible young northern Catholics who would otherwise have to no choice but to bend the knee and join the green and white army.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 created the conditions for northern Catholics to declare their allegiance to Ireland in their choice of passport and choice of team to represent. Northern Irish Protestants are also free to opt for an Irish passport and many of them have done so. It is also factually incorrect that the Republic of Ireland has never approached Protestant players who have appeared for the North.

One of the most famous Northern Irish players to turn out for the Republic in the Jack Charlton era was an English-born, Northern Irish schoolboy international named Alan Kernaghan. He was not selected for the Northern Ireland team because of being born outside the country, but the Republic gladly accepted him into their ranks. Interestingly, guys like Will Grigg could qualify for both Irish teams of the present day under the same rule. But it is not the Will Griggs or the Alan Kernaghans that the issue is about here.

It is the likes of James McClean, Shane Duffy, Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson, Eunan O’Kane, and many more not yet capped as full internationals. Many young Catholics play for Northern Ireland at youth level, and then switch allegiance as they get older. But in assuming they do so because of simply being approached by the Republic is naïve in the extreme. They do so because, even twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, there is still no Northern Irish identity that reflects a society evenly divided between Catholics and Protestants, Irish and British.

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Instead, most of the symbols of the state represent only one side. There is a perception that Britishness equates to neutrality, so there is nothing wrong with playing the British national anthem before games or having British military symbolism at matches.

Perhaps it is time to find a neutral anthem as the rugby team has done, take away any symbols that are contentious on either side, and make the Northern Ireland team, like the state, representative of a place where the two identities are equal. In this way, players and supporters may start to feel a greater affinity with the team and with the wider state. Can’t the IFA and can’t the state, as it is, come up with something more than the continuation of a history of denying the fact that Irish Catholics, born on the island of Ireland, have an Irish identity, and that this identity needs to be reflected in the symbolism of the state?

Or is it simply a case of each side continuing on their separate ways? Those who feel British support Northern Ireland. Those who feel Irish support the Republic. Those somewhere in the middle support both, maybe one day looking forward to a single team representing the island of Ireland under a shared identity. Until then, no doubt there’ll be more internet rumours and whatever the source of this one, it has generated plenty of debate in the run up to the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that was supposed to heal the wounds of our divided society.

Paul Breen is on Twitter @CharltonMen and author of football related books found here.

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