An Open Letter to the Irish Football Association sign now

The Carling Cup of Nations (or Celtic Cup) has brought a number of issues relating to the Northern Ireland team, the IFA and the IFA’s relationship with the FAI to the fore. While the recent boycott of the tournament by Northern Ireland fans, over their treatment by the IFA, FAI and Irish police, has attracted a good deal of publicity, it should be noted that an informal pre-existing boycott was already in place, with many supporters, including some who have followed the team to South America, the United States, the Caribbean and the farthest corners of Europe, refusing to make the short trip to Dublin to watch our team. The primary reason for this boycott is the increasing selection of Northern Ireland born or capped players by the FAI, despite their already representing Northern Ireland at all levels up to, and now including, full international.

The time has come for the IFA to make a stand against this practice; if it continues the very existence of the association and the international team is endangered. We recognise that this is not a situation of the IFA’s making, that FIFA’s ruling on player eligibility was challenged by the association, and that strenuous efforts have been made by the IFA, as part of its “Football For All” scheme, to ensure that football in Northern Ireland remains cross-community and teams at all levels are selected on merit alone.

FIFA’s ruling has placed our country’s team at a disadvantage faced by no other, namely, every single player eligible to play for us can also be selected by the FAI. The FAI’s shameless exploitation of this rule to the detriment of Northern Ireland teams, and the public statements of its officials vowing to continue and expand this practice, makes cordial relations between the two associations impossible. Our objection is based on a matter of principle, that the selection of players who have played for Northern Ireland at every level - full international included – by the FAI is unethical, opportunistic and, by accident or design, sectarian, and must cease.

While we object to the precedent that the FIFA ruling, and subsequent CAS judgement, have established, we must stress that we accept that some players from Northern Ireland will choose to represent the Republic of Ireland team. This is, of course, regrettable, but we absolutely and unequivocally respect their choice. To those players considering switching allegiance, however, we say this: please do not accept a call-up from the IFA unless it is your intention to play for Northern Ireland. Your actions let down fans who give you unstinting support, waste the scarce resources of the IFA and, worst of all, deny a cap to someone who genuinely wanted it and would have been proud to accept it. Such expedient behaviour in denying another player the chance to win a cap, the highest honour in international football, is utterly unethical and reflects poorly on those who do it.

As longstanding supporters of the Northern Ireland team we urge the IFA to act upon the following proposal: it must secure a public commitment from the FAI, or a joint statement from both associations to the same effect, that it will no longer select players who have represented Northern Ireland at U19 level and above, regardless of FIFA’s rules and regardless of whether or not a senior cap was won in a friendly international. This amounts to, in essence, the reintroduction of the gentleman’s agreement which existed for over fifty years and worked to the mutual benefit of both associations.

If the FAI is prepared to make this commitment, the IFA must, without question, reciprocate, and not select players who have previously represented the Republic of Ireland, even if they were born in Northern Ireland; if the FAI refuses and continues to behave in its current unscrupulous and unprincipled way, behaviour which threatens the continued existence of the IFA and Northern Ireland team, then we demand that all co-operation between the two associations at all levels cease.

The forthcoming fixture between the two countries is an ideal opportunity for the associations to bring this matter to an amicable conclusion and, in the name of continued cordial relations, to publicly announce that a binding agreement on player selection has been reached. Such an agreement is in the interests of all concerned as it would strengthen and equalise the relationship between the FAI and IFA and end distractive speculation surrounding players.

If the IFA refuses to pursue this course of action, then it will have declared itself unfit to run football in Northern Ireland. In this event, its senior administrators must resign and be replaced by people who will serve the national team’s best interests.

To our team which will take the field in Dublin without our usual vocal support, we are deeply sorry that we cannot be in attendance, but be assured that we are with you in spirit: Play with pride. Play with passion. Play for the shirt.

The Undersigned

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