Friday, 2 December 2011

The Great "Northern Ireland" Anthem Debate

Northern Ireland fans

Over the past two weeks, The Irish Football Association (IFA) has once again come under public scrutiny following comments from former Northern Ireland international Paul McVeigh, who criticised the association's decision to use the anthem 'God Save the Queen' before games. The former Norwich man said, “Northern Ireland, as long as it continues with that anthem, will not have an identity of its own and players will continue to turn to the Republic.”. Radio phone lines have swelled and internet forums buzz with debate. Former international Gerry Armstrong has even stated that he has asked Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody about the possibility of penning a new anthem.

I want to make two things clear before I start. One: as with all things international football, this debate is inherently political, there is no escaping that fact and two: despite the noises of the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs (AONISC) to the contrary, the “eligibility row” has been emphatically settled since the famous Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) case of 2010.

It must also be noted that the IFA, as defined by FIFA, constitutes one of the four “British Associations”, along with the Scottish Football Association (SFA), the Football Association of Wales (FAW) and the (English) Football Association (FA). As a consequence, in order to play for the representative teams of the IFA, one must necessarily hold British nationality. This is abundantly clear from even a cursory glance at FIFA's statutes, which are readily available online, and can also be gleaned from a reading of the report of the “IFA versus Daniel Kearns, the FAI and FIFA” CAS case (also available online).

One of the arguments, therefore, used by fans against changing the anthem of the Northern Ireland football team, is that 'God Save the Queen' is the British anthem so it is fitting for Northern Ireland, a British association. However this argument falls down on the simple basis that two other British associations, namely the SFA and the FAW use their own, unique anthems for football, much to the satisfaction of their fans. This argument is also an insult in that it completely disregards the socio-political reality of Northern Ireland, whereby a sizeable portion of the population simply do not identify as British.

Somewhat paradoxically to the assertion of Britishness through the use of 'God Save The Queen', the idea of a singular British association is something that the IFA is vehemently opposed to, as there are fears that the association may eventually lose its autonomy at the behest of FIFA. It would seem logical then, for the IFA to assert its uniqueness through the adoption of a new, separate anthem, as the FAW and SFA have done.

It has been suggested that the notion of changing the Northern Ireland football anthem to something “less British” is a mere red herring, because some players will continue to opt for the Republic of Ireland in opposition to what is an inescapably British association. While this suggestion may contain a degree of truth, it would be remarkably na├»ve to suggest that moving towards neutral ground would make absolutely no difference. Why exactly has there been such a clamour about the issue through the years, one asks?

On BBC Radio Ulster last week, Joel Taggart took calls from a variety of callers and I was struck by the views of one caller who complained, much like a petulant child, about the fact that the IFA always comes in for criticism. In a tremendous fit of 'whataboutery', he strangely moaned “Why is it always the IFA, why don't people ask the Republic to change their anthem?”. 

To try and drag the FAI into the debate is utterly desperate - the issue is the IFA's to resolve and the FAI have nothing to do with it.

So the issue is indeed the IFA's to resolve, but who should they consult? Current Northern Ireland fans, desperately clinging to the identity of their national team, snarl that only they should have a say and that those who do not support Northern Ireland in its current guise should not have any input whatsoever; it's “their” wee team, after all, they argue. 

It seems strange to me however, that a team that purports to represent the people of the six counties of Northern Ireland would not at least take into consideration the views of those people as a whole. The IFA is the governing body for football in Northern Ireland, it is not the governing body for football for current Northern Ireland supporters alone.

The IFA faces many obstacles in a society that has always been characterised by division and conflict. If they wish to be an association representative of the people of Northern Ireland and attract those from all corners of society, they must start being proactive and assume the most neutral ground conceivable without favouring one side over the other. The alternative, of course, is the status quo and, well, look where that has got them.

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