Rory Best and Jimmy Nesbitt among those suggesting ‘God Save The Queen’ should be replaced by a more ‘inclusive’ song
Northern Ireland’s centenary year has led to a re-examination of key events since Ireland was partitioned. But 2021 is also the centenary of another act of partition.
In 1921, football officials in Dublin decided they were fed up with what they perceived to be a northern bias at the Belfast-based Irish Football Association (IFA).
So they set up their own governing body, which eventually became the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). Ever since, there have been two football teams in Ireland.
It’s tempting to blame politics for the football split, and yet Irish rugby and cricket survived partition, as did other all-Ireland sports like boxing, hockey and golf. I decided to look into why this happened, and the ongoing consequences. The result is a documentary to be shown tonight on UTV at 8.0, called Up Close — A Game Of Two Halves.
It’s a history of how the Northern Ireland football team has had to cope with the unique problems caused by sectarian divisions and civil strife; how some crucial matches were played in the midst of some of the worst moments in The Troubles, and how its young players are allowed to switch sides and play for the Republic.
Player eligibility was an issue which Michael O’Neill tried to tackle head on when he was Northern Ireland’s manager.
He told me: “The rules are biased to, obviously, the Republic of Ireland. The FAI have a right to choose any player from Northern Ireland, but they only approach one side of the community to play. I think there’s a sense of realism that they feel that only one side of the community will make that decision.”
For some players from the nationalist community, a call from the FAI was too tempting. James McClean and Shane Duffy were born in Derry, but chose to play for the Republic.
Last year, Belfast-born Mark Sykes, who’d scored a goal for Northern Ireland’s U-21 side and earned a call-up to the senior squad, decided to play for the Republic.
He told the programme: “I just feel like if I was to play that one game for the Republic of Ireland, it would mean more than 50 caps for Northern Ireland.”
He’s still waiting for his first call-up.
Niall McGinn, on the other hand, has more than 60 caps for Northern Ireland, and explained his pride in playing for the country despite a GAA background.
“It doesn’t matter your religion, your background, your race, colour, you should always be welcome at Windsor Park and pull on the Northern Ireland jersey,” he said.
Martin O’Neill, who holds the unique position of having captained Northern Ireland as a player but went on to become manager of the Republic of Ireland, acknowledged “the North is handicapped in many ways by the rules as they stand”.
But O’Neill also believes it’s the players’ choice. And so the IFA approach has been to make every player in their system feel valued, and to continue the work to de-sectarianise football in Northern Ireland.
The Windsor Park match-day experience has been transformed in recent years. Not just the architecture of the stadium, but the colour of the stands.
Where once red, white and blue were the predominant colours of flags and scarves, there’s now a Green and White Army.
For 21st-century fans who now think of Sweet Caroline as their favourite song, it may be painful to watch the programme and be reminded of how things used to be.
Terry Neill, a player in the 1960s and manager in the 1970s, recalls how goalkeeping great Pat Jennings was verbally abused by some supporters because of his religion.
Why revisit the past? Because it shows how Northern Ireland has evolved as a country, and as a football team. Some would like to take that evolution further.
Michael O’Neill, actor James Nesbitt and Marissa Callaghan, the captain of Northern Ireland’s women’s team, all tell the programme how they would like a new pre-match anthem to replace God Save The Queen.
Michael O’Neill says he always felt his team were at a disadvantage because other teams would sing their anthems with pride and patriotism.
When Northern Ireland’s women played England at Wembley a few weeks ago, one anthem represented both teams.
As the camera panned down the line of English and Northern Irish players singing God Save The Queen, Callaghan stared straight ahead. She’s from a family who grew up supporting Celtic and the Republic of Ireland.
“As a Catholic player, unfortunately I don’t get that experience of standing tall and singing the anthem as loud as you can,” she explained. “But it doesn’t take away the pride and the passion and what it means to put on the green shirt.”
Actor Nesbitt has been going to Windsor Park for 50 years.
He told the programme: “If it creates disharmony in not only the team, but within the supporters, then how can you unite to support and get behind the team?”
But there isn’t an obvious alternative. Nesbitt jokingly argues for The Undertones or Van Morrison. Rory Best, the former Ulster and Ireland rugby captain, praises Ireland’s Call for uniting players and fans and says God Save The Queen “isn’t very inclusive” and reminds him of playing England at Twickenham.
Former First Minister Arlene Foster, unsurprisingly, sees no reason to change.
There’ll be views expressed in the programme that you may agree with, and some you vehemently reject. But at least we are talking about issues which are still often seen as taboo.