2016 is a momentous year for Northern Irish football, with the national team qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since 1986. It is also significant for Ireland as a whole, since the Republic will also compete at the Euros this summer. This is the first time that both North and South have qualified for the same tournament.
Many will feel a sense of mutual admiration at this feat. For others, though, the tribal nature of Irish football makes warm feelings difficult. The rivalry between the two team has a deep-seated history, intertwined with notions of religion, nationality and identity. Over the years, it has acted as a magnifying glass for larger communal tensions in Northern Ireland.
19th century roots
The origins of the rivalry between North and South originate in the second half of the 19th century. It was at this time that football was establishing itself as a major force on the island. Initially, it was largely the reserve of Ulster Protestant communities in the North. Therefore, Belfast became the centre of Irish footballing gravity, with the Irish Football Association (IFA) being formed in the city.
Football took a little longer to make its mark further South, but by the 1880s it was firmly entrenched across Ireland. However, the IFA maintained control and faced accusations of Northern biassed. Southern footballers took issue with the selection of players for the national team, pointing out that between 1882 and 1921 players from Leinster clubs won just 75 caps compared to Ulster’s 798. Furthermore, the vast majority of international matches were held in Belfast, with Dublin only occasionally getting the nod.
Clearly, tensions were already brewing. This would come to the fore during the greater political turmoil of the 1920s.
The trigger that led to the great split in Irish football was the violent atmosphere of partition. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 was followed by the bitter War of Independence, throwing the nation into a state of chaos. In 1921, Northern side Glenavon were due to travel down to Dublin to face Shelbourne in an Irish Cup replay. However, Glenavon refused, citing the deteriorating security situation in the city. The IFA ruled that the tie would instead be played at Glenavon’s ground. Shelbourne were incensed and promptly pulled out of the competition.
The IFA now had a full-out footballing rebellion on its hands. Within months, Southern clubs had formed their own ruling body, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
This created a situation where there were two rival football associations, both fielding teams under the name Ireland, both claiming to represent the entirety of Ireland. This extended into the selection of players. From 1921 to 1950, the IFA picked 38 players from the South to play under its banner.
This bizarre situation continued until 1953, when FIFA were forced to take action. During the qualifying campaign for the 1950 World Cup, four players had competed for both the North and the South. The fact that all four were Southerners had enraged the FAI, who lobbied FIFA to intervene. Football’s governing body responded by decreeing that the teams could only draw on players from within existing political borders. Furthermore, neither team would be able to use the name ‘Ireland’, rather being referred to as Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The settlement remained intact for decades. However, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 reopened old wounds. It allowed Northern Irish Catholics to claim citizenship with the Republic, effectively creating a loophole by which Northern-born players could defect. One such case was Darron Gibson, whose decision to play for the Republic led to a spat between the two FAs, and even questions being asked in Stormont. Ultimately, FIFA reaffirmed Gibson’s right to play for the Republic, setting a precedent for a wave of other Northern Catholic players to don the FAI’s jersey.
A sense of seething injustice has haunted Northern Irish football ever since, with the IFA bemoaning the 'footballing apartheid' which has led to them hemorrhaging some of their brightest talents.
Reunification: an impossible dream
There have been many who have called for the reunification of the two teams, following the example of Irish rugby. This cause gained traction the 1970s, with high profile figures such as George Best expressing their desire to play for a United Ireland.
Between 1973 and 1980, The IFA and FAI met a number of times to discuss the issue. At first, it looked like a settlement could actually be reached. The two FAs even went as far as fielded a united team for charity events.
However, the push for reunification was very much going against the grain of the political climate. The Troubles were at their peak, and ultimately the ideological chasm proved to be too great. For Northern Irish loyalists, in particular, the symbolism of a United Ireland team would be unthinkable. Harry Cavan, the IFA president at the time, commented:
“The problem with people who speak glibly of unity in Irish soccer . . . is that they tend to ignore the facts of life here in the North of Ireland. The concept of one Ireland football team may be exciting but, unfortunately, it does not take account of the fact that we are living in troubled times. “
Windsor Park, 17th November 1993
In the wake of the failed reunification talks, the political situation in Northern Ireland continued to deteriorate. 1993 was a year that would live in particular infamy. A botched assassination attempt by the IRA had killed eight Protestant civilians in the Shankill Road bombing. In retaliation, the UDA shot eight Catholic civilians in the Greysteel Massacre.
With sectarian tensions reaching boiling point, it was pure coincidence that Northern Ireland and the Republic were due to meet in the last match of the qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup.
The Republic needed to avoid defeat in order to qualify. Northern Ireland were already out of contention for a place in the World Cup. However, the political situation created added importance to the match. Furthermore, the Green and White Army were desperate to avenge their humiliating 3-0 defeat a few months earlier in Dublin.
The match was held in the Unionist stronghold of Windsor Park. Given the climate, authorities were seriously concerned that the match could spark further unrest. Police were out in force around Windsor Park that evening, and the Republic of Ireland players were afforded a heavy 24-hour security presence.
Few who witnessed the atmosphere inside Windsor Park that night will ever forget it. Jack Charlton commented that “I have never seen a more hostile atmosphere."
Republic midfielder Alan McLoughlin recalls receiving a 'cacophony of abuse' throughout the match from the stands:
“I could hear it and feel it right behind me. You didn’t dare look around and make eye contact. The venom in their eyes shocked me.”
The Windsor Park faithful were only bolstered by the gallant display from their boys on the pitch. Fired up by the occasion, Northern Ireland outplayed their Southern counterparts. A 73rd minute strike from Jimmy Quinn gave them a deserved lead, seemingly sinking the Republic and sending the home fans into ecstasy.
However, just minutes later McLoughlin grabbed an equaliser, against the run of play. The Republic dug in and were able to hold on to the draw, securing their place at USA 1994.
The match itself was absorbing, but the abiding memory gravitates around events off the pitch. For many, the outright hostility and sectarian overtones of the clash highlighted some of the less savoury aspects of Northern Irish society. It acted as a barometer for a dark period in the nation’s history.
Few would dispute the fact that Northern Ireland has come a long way since The Troubles. However, just as tensions remain within society as a whole, football continues to see its fair share conflict.
In 2002, Neil Lennon received abuse and death threats from some his own fans. A Catholic who played for Celtic and supported a unified Ireland team, Lennon was a natural enemy for some of Northern Ireland’s more hardcore elements. Old tribal sentiments die hard.
In general, though, the venom seen in 1993 has rarely been repeated. The two teams have met each other since in friendlies and qualifiers, with the atmosphere being much more cordial. The IFA has even since made attempts to bridge sectarian divides, regularly hosting events to bring Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren together in the pursuit of football. It reflects a Northern Ireland more comfortable with its identity, more willing to put the conflicts of the past behind it.