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Martin McGuinness calls for all-Ireland football team after Windsor Park welcome

MARTIN McGuinness has reiterated his desire for an all-Ireland international football team after visiting the home of the Northern Irish side for the first time in almost 50 years.

Stormont's Deputy First Minister was at Windsor Park in Belfast to watch a club game between his team Derry City and hosts Linfield.

The Sinn Fein veteran's attendance last night at a stadium with a history of sectarian problems and still viewed by many republicans as a cold house for Catholics represented another landmark in improving cross-community relations in Northern Ireland.

It came weeks after Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson was guest at his first Gaelic football match, a sport almost exclusively associated with the nationalist tradition.

Mr McGuinness, who last visited Windsor Park in 1964 before the Troubles began, said the warm welcome he received last night was a sign of changed times.

Windsor Park is the home of Linfield FC and the Northern Ireland team play their international matches there. But many nationalists who live north of the border choose to support the Republic of Ireland.

Derry City compete in the Republic of Ireland's domestic league, having left Northern Ireland's top division during the Troubles.

Last night's 1-1 draw against Linfield was in the Setanta Cup, a competition involving teams from both leagues.

The deputy first minister has indicated he would be willing to attend a Northern Ireland game in the future but he stressed his hope that Ireland would one day be represented by one team, with one main league in the island.

"Monday night's game was my first time at Windsor Park since the early sixties," he said.

"I have very fond memories of travelling on a train from Derry with my late father and brother Paul to see Derry take on Glentoran.

"It was a very pleasant experience to be there last night and I want to pay tribute to the board of Linfield and everyone associated with the club for the very warm welcome that I received, and it's very clearly a sign of the changing times.

"I firmly believe that sporting matches are unifying occasions for many people.

"It's wonderful that Peter Robinson and myself are able to give leadership and clearly show that we want to see sport being unifying and see community relationships built up through sport. I think we should do everything possible to take the politics out of sport.

"Talking as a sports fan, it is my very strong view that soccer on the island would be much better served if we had an all-Ireland league and one international team.

"But that is a matter for the footballing authorities. That's only my opinion as a true sports fan."

In past years Windsor Park experienced many problems with sectarian chanting from sections of the crowd.

In 2002 then Northern Ireland captain and Celtic star Neil Lennon was forced to retire from international football after receiving a death threat from loyalists.

But in recent times, cross-community initiatives have helped to greatly improve the atmosphere at Windsor Park, with the supporters recognised with a European award in 2006 for their strides to eradicate sectarianism.

Celtic player Pat McCourt has recently established himself as a cult hero among the Northern Ireland faithful.

Despite progress, many Catholics from north of the border like Everton's Darron Gibson and Sunderland's James McClean still opt to play for the Republic of Ireland, an option made possible under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

It is a talent drain that new Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has pledged to address.

Mr McGuinness was at the Republic's last match in Dublin cheering on McClean when he made his debut against the Czech Republic.

PA Media