Thursday 29 September 2016

Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland could meet in Euro 2016 warm-up in Belfast

Suzanne Breen

Published 17/12/2015 | 10:16

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who were jointly presented with the Philips Manager of the Year Award last week
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill, who were jointly presented with the Philips Manager of the Year Award last week

The new Windsor Park stadium could host a friendly international between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland next year.

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The match would mark a growing spirit of co-operation between the teams before they fly off to compete in the Euro 2016 finals.

Both managers have already spoken of their mutual respect and have vowed to offer each other all advice and assistance possible in preparation for heading to France.

The revamped Windsor Park has been suggested as the ideal venue for the friendly, which would cement the new closer relationship.

Northern Ireland and the Republic played in June, drawing 0-0 at the Aviva Stadium, but it was an unofficial game behind closed doors.

The last official fixture was almost five years ago in Dublin. Before that there were several controversial meetings during the 1990s.

Both Michael O'Neill and Martin O'Neill have said they would welcome a friendly international, while the Football Association of Ireland this week announced that the May 27 date with the Netherlands would be their final home friendly before the European Championships - further adding to the possibility that Windsor could stage an away warm-up tie thereafter.

Speculation about the match comes as a Belfast City Council committee takes a vital vote tomorrow on a proposal to host a historic joint reception for the teams.

The council's strategic policy and resources committee is set to discuss a motion to invite both sides to the groundbreaking event.

With unionists opposed to the move, the votes of Alliance members on the committee will be crucial.

Dublin City Council has already approved a motion to hold a joint reception for both teams in the Irish capital.

SDLP councillor Declan Boyle last night warned that if the strategic policy and resources committee failed to support his party's proposal for the reception, Belfast would be sending out an "embarrassingly backward message" to the sporting world.

Mr Boyle said that the motion was "a genuine attempt to promote cross-community unity" in celebration of two teams under Northern Ireland managers qualifying for Euro 2016.

He said the SDLP proposal was in keeping with the growing momentum for a friendly between the sides.

"I couldn't think of a better send-off than to have them play at the new Windsor Park stadium and to host a reception for them at City Hall on the same day," he said.

"There is nothing in the slightest threatening about this proposal and I genuinely can't see why it has met with opposition from unionists. We should be celebrating this wonderful and unique achievement, not continuing a petty political squabble."

Unionist councillors have opposed the idea of a joint reception.

Ulster Unionist councillor Jim Rodgers has questioned the motive behind the proposal and said he would prefer a reception for "the British Isles teams" which would include England and Wales.

DUP councillor Brian Kingston has said it would be inappropriate for the council to stage the event.

"Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland team is our national team," he stated.

Councillor Boyle said that while Belfast was dithering over what to do, Dublin City Council had seized the initiative.

"Having heard about the SDLP proposal last month, Dublin council decided to run with it. Their officials are now about to talk to the Irish Football Association and the Football Association of Ireland about making it happen," he said.

"Belfast city councillors really need to stop dragging their heels or they will be left behind looking very ungracious. I hope Alliance councillors will support this motion on Friday and we will be able to get moving on it."

If passed, the motion will go before a full council meeting for consideration next month.

Former Northern Ireland player Gerry Armstrong has supported the proposed joint reception and expressed his dismay at the political row.

"I think it's a great idea. Unfortunately, politics in Northern Ireland tends to get in the way," he said.

Former IFA president Jim Boyce has said political differences should be put aside to honour the achievement of both teams.

Belfast Telegraph

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