Friday 24 November 2017

Nigel has got to put up or shut up

Eamonn Sweeney

Nigel Worthington should stop whinging. Enough already with the self-pitying guff from Northern Ireland's mediocre manager about the decision by some players born in the North to declare for the Republic of Ireland at full international level.

After all, it's only a few months since Worthington stated that he never wanted to see an all-Ireland international football team. "Northern Ireland is a different country to the Republic of Ireland. You have your own team, you have your own nation," said Worthington, sounding not unlike Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott who lost the rag at a recent election count and started complaining that Sinn Féin supporters holding tricolours were carrying "the flags of a foreign country."

It's a mite disconcerting too to hear the Northern Ireland manager complaining that a 'loophole' enables players born in the North to play for the Republic. The 'loophole' in question is better known as the Good Friday Agreement, a painstakingly constructed attempt to bring an end to two decades of terrible violence in the North.

One of its key provisions was to recognise the validity of Northern Nationalists' cultural identity. If they wanted to identify with the Republic, or a United Ireland, rather than the North, they were entitled to do so. It's called parity of esteem.

You see, the problem is that there are people in the North who do not think of the place as a 'nation' but as a gerrymandered political construct cobbled together to suit the exigencies of British politics in the 1920s. For a long time they didn't have any option but to put up with this. But under the GFA their right to regard themselves as not owing ultimate loyalty to the six-county state was codified. Nigel might not like this but that's how it is.

There was a time when people down here really liked the Northern Ireland soccer team. Everyone rejoiced at their heroics in the 1982 World Cup. But things changed when Billy Bingham stoked up tensions before the Republic played a vital World Cup qualifying match in 1993. Windsor Park was a cauldron of hatred that night and when Northern Ireland took the lead, home fans chanted 'trick or treat' in reference to sectarian murders committed days before by Unionist paramilitaries. Nothing similar ever happened at Lansdowne Road.

Since then we've had the booing of Neil Lennon by his own fans while playing for the North. And we've had bullets being sent from Northern Ireland in the post to Celtic players Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn who, ironically, have done what Worthington would advise and played for his side.

It's still not enough to placate the bigots who've also mounted a hate campaign against Darron Gibson, the most high-profile Northern Catholic to declare for the Republic. That campaign has been fuelled by a sense of injustice which is only heightened by Worthington's remarks. He should think before he speaks and not expose other young players to the same kind of pressure.

Ideally, players from the North wouldn't be declaring for the Republic. Because ideally there would be an all-Ireland team. Derek Dougan, a Protestant, mooted the idea 38 years ago, put together a great team for a memorable friendly against Brazil and had his international career ended as a result. If this idea is too much for Worthington to bear, he can't complain when players drift across the border.

And while Nigel Worthington may regard the Republic of Ireland as a foreign country, many of his fellow citizens don't hold the same view. They know why Derry City were forced to play in the League of Ireland, why Belfast Celtic don't exist anymore and why last week Niall McGinn was the latest Northern Ireland player to suffer a predictable onslaught from the bigots.

If Nigel and his mates want Northern Ireland to have a unionist football team, they're going the right way about it. But they can't complain. Because the days when Catholics could like it or lump it in the North are long gone. One more thing. 5-0, 5-0, 5-0, 5-0.

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