A majority of people inside the Six Counties favour the creation of a single all-Ireland soccer team, according to a report by the Ulster University.
Support for the move in Ireland has long been at an overwhelming 80-90 per cent. But the first detailed study on attitudes to sport in the North reported that 54 per cent of respondents inside the Six County area supported an all-island soccer team: some 70 per cent of the Catholic community were in favour, with 39 per cent of Protestants also supporting a change.
The Ulster University’s research, which was commissioned by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, included 104 in-depth interviews and a survey of 1,210 people living inside the Six Counties.
The report comes after both the Ireland team and a ‘Northern Ireland’ team qualified for next summer’s European championships. Neither side is given much chance by pundits of progressing to the second stage of the competition.
Unlike rugby, cricket and many other international sports, a feud among soccer officials in the 1920s caused a split into two football associations, with both associations claiming to represent the island of Ireland.
Since the split, two international soccer sides emerged which have had relatively little success compared to the unified Irish teams competing in other sports disciplines.
While the Six County team made it to the 1986 World Cup in Spain, it has been the Republic of Ireland squad that has been more successful, qualifying for three World Cups and two European Championships.
The former Six-County Irish Football Association (IFA) president Jim Boyce has claimed that having two teams in Ireland “allowed more players the opportunity to play” at international level.
But in recent years the 26-County government has supported the idea of an all Ireland soccer team, and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has also backed a single Irish team.
“Talking as a sports fan it is my very strong view that soccer on the island would be much better served it we had an all-Ireland league and one international team,” Mr McGuinness said recently.
“But that is a matter for the footballing authorities, that’s only my opinion as a true sports fan.”