Sinn Fein has called on the manager of the ‘Northern Ireland’ soccer squad to withdraw comments in which he complained that “Catholic” players from the Six Counties had been convinced to play for the Irish national team.
Michael O’Neill (pictured, right) expressed annoyance that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), based in Dublin, has recruited northern players who could have played for his side.
There are currently five players from the north who have played youth football for ‘Northern Ireland’ but later declared for the national team, including prominent players such as James McClean and Shane Duffy.
Under international rules, players born north of the border can opt to play for either team, but Mr O’Neill claimed those from a nationalist background have been particularly urged to play for Ireland. He claimed they would have received more game-time had they played for his squad.
Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney said the comments were “divisive and unnecessary”.
“The Good Friday Agreement protects the right of every citizen in the north to assert their own identity and citizenship,” he said.
Mr McCartney pointed out there was little accommodation for those who see themselves as Irish in the ‘Northern Ireland’ set-up.
“Irish players are denied their national anthem, their national flag, and are often the subject of fan chants in Windsor Park which target Irish players and their identity,” he said
“I am calling on the Irish Football Association (IFA) to publicly refute Michael O’Neill’s comments.”
Rory Hale, a player who opted to play for Ireland last year, recently explained his switch. “I grew up in north Belfast,” he said. “I’m Irish, my family is Irish and I want to play for Ireland. I’ve always been an Ireland fan.”
The manager of the Ireland squad, Martin O’Neill (pictured, left), also hit back at Michael O’Neill over his comments. He has said that he has “never chosen a player on anything other than merit” and described the comments as “very disappointing”.
“To actually talk about religion and bring religion into it - it’s very disappointing.”
SDLP representative Justin McNulty said the majority of Catholics would prefer to play for Ireland.
“I am sure Michael O’Neill wants the best players to play for him and that’s his prerogative,” he said.
“However, most Catholics identify with the Republic and that’s why they want to play for it.
“Some Catholics are happy to play for the north and do and I’m sure the current arrangement will continue until such times as there is one unified Irish team.”