The small island of Ireland is divided into two even smaller countries, and it came as a surprise to me, while watching the Euro Cup in 2016, to learn that each of these countries have their own international soccer teams. I couldn’t help but wonder, why not compete together to strengthen the chances of being competitive? However, research into the subject matter revealed a complicated story behind why the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland choose to compete separately—a story that mirrors the tale of how the island became divided to begin with.
Today in Ireland, there are two main soccer associations: the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). The IFA is the governing body in Northern Ireland, and it was founded in 1880 by a collection of football clubs in Belfast. Conversely, the FAI is the governing association for soccer in the Republic of Ireland, and it was founded in 1921, 41 years after the IFA.
The original intention of the IFA was to be the sole governing soccer association for all of Ireland. This intention was short lived. The result of sectarian conflict, which was present for centuries but heightened in the early 1900s, was an Anglo-Irish treaty and the partition of Ireland into a British-controlled Northern Ireland, and a pseudo-independent Irish Republic in the south. The treaty was signed in 1921, the same year the FAI formed and the Irish soccer divide began.
Undoubtedly, there were a combination of events and forces that contributed to the formation of the FAI. One often cited reason, however, is an infamous decision made by the IFA during the Irish Cup (a tournament crowning a club in Ireland as champion). A semi-final draw between Shelbourne, a Dublin club, and the Lurgan club Glenavon necessitated that the match be replayed. Since the first match had been played in Belfast, a primarily protestant city in Northern Ireland, many assumed the next match would be played in Dublin, a predominantly Catholic city in southern Ireland.
This was not the case. The IFA decided that the match should be replayed in Belfast, and many within Ireland were outraged. Those offended by the decision insisted that this event was one of many examples of a ‘Belfast bias’: the perceived preferential treatment that Belfast, and other protestant cities in the north, received from the IFA.
This was a tipping point, and shortly after the IFA’s decision, various soccer clubs and associations gathered in Dublin to form the FAI. Importantly, the FAI insisted that it would govern the game throughout all of the 32 counties of Ireland. This was an overtly political gesture, since it laid claim to counties which had been partitioned to Northern Ireland.
Attempts at reconciliation between the two soccer associations occurred in both 1924 and 1932 and both failed. Each party contested which parts of Ireland belong to which organization, a discussion that was similarly being had in the political arena: which counties belong to the Irish Republic and which to Northern Ireland? The disputes continued for decades, and it resulted in the boundaries for soccer jurisdiction matching the boundaries for the now-separate countries.
In order for the FAI to establish itself during its early years, not only was it important to succeed in politically spirited discussions with the IFA, but also to receive international recognition. Doing so would help ensure legitimacy and recognition for Irish soccer in the Republic. However, their closets neighbors, Britain, understandably were reluctant to cooperate with an organization who stood directly opposed to the IFA and British initiatives in Northern Ireland.
In 1923 the FAI found a breakthrough when the French FA decided to send one of their best clubs to compete against Ireland. This importantly granted a level of international legitimacy to an organization that was still unrecognized by its neighbors in England, Scotland and Wales. Following this, the FAI was accepted into FIFA and given jurisdiction over the 26 counties in south Ireland. This left the IFA with only 6. Today, the two organizations remain the governing soccer institutions in their respective counties. Tensions between the two remain as well.
Currently, debates rage over eligibility issues for players who want to play for the Republic and live in the North and vice versa. A recent example is James McClean, who declared his intention to play for the Republic of Ireland despite spending his youth competing for Northern Ireland.
Former Republic of Ireland manager, Brian Kerr, offered his comments saying, “I know some of the northern players have an identity with the Republic because of the communities they’re living in. I think over time that can change.” This is not the only case of a player from the North defecting to play soccer for the Republic.
This reflects how closely aligned sporting cultures and national identities are in Ireland. In this case, McClean was eager to align his sporting career with the national (and political) identity he felt suited him. Herein lies the reason the island’s soccer teams remain divided: sectarian wounds and nationalist identities are still present, still a source of tension, and still at the center of cultural attitudes toward sport. Given the historical account of Ireland in the 20th and 21st century, it is inevitable that the soccer divide will embody more than just a game.
The Irish Soccer Split, Moore, C., Cork, Cork University Press, 2015
An Ugly Divide in the Beautiful Game, Cormac Moore https://www.independent.ie/life/an-ugly-divide-in-the-beautiful-game-34787152.html
It’s Time the IFA Sang a New Song as Player Eligibility Rows Rumble On, Brendan Crossan http://www.irishnews.com/sport/opinion/2017/03/17/news/it-s-time-the-ifa-sang-a-new-song-as-player-eligibility-rows-rumble-on-966797/