‘Two Teams in a Small Country like this is Nonsensical’ This was a quote from Harry Cavan, president of the Irish Football Association (IFA) and vice-president of FIFA at the AGM of the IFA in 1979. At that time, during the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, talks were taking place between the IFA and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) to form one international football team. Those talks took place in earnest from 1973 to 1980 to bring about union, a union that would see only one Irish team in the draw this Saturday for Euro 2016 if it had transpired, instead of the two Irish teams who appear in the draw for the first time at the same time.
The attempts to bring about an all-Ireland team in many ways was a player-led initiative with prominent players such as George Best, Derek Dougan and John Giles all calling for one team on the island. An all-Ireland team, organised by Dougan and Giles, did take to the field in the guise of a Shamrock Rovers XI who played against the World Champions Brazil in a thrilling encounter at Lansdowne Road in July 1973, the Brazilians winning by four goals to three.
Although not supported by the IFA nor the FAI, the match did prompt the FAI to contact the IFA to discuss the possibility of re-unifying. Soccer in Ireland had been governed by the IFA in Belfast on an all-Ireland basis from 1880 to 1921. In 1921 the Leinster Football Association seceded from the IFA, the FAI was established later that year. The IFA unanimously agreed to meet the FAI and talks that had not taken place since 1932 between both associations begun again.
The intervening period had seen the relationship between the IFA and the FAI wane considerably with both claiming the right to call on players from the whole island to play for their different “Ireland” teams. It led to bizarre scenarios. In one instance, Johnny Carey played for an IFA selected “Ireland” team against England on 28 February 1946. Two days later he played for an FAI selected “Ireland” team, also against England. FIFA put a stop to this practice by prohibiting associations from selecting players not born in an association’s jurisdiction. The practice came to an end in 1950.
The IFA was still reluctant to part with the name “Ireland”. It retains its original name today, the Irish Football Association, despite previous campaigns by the FAI to have the association change its name to the Northern Ireland Football Association to reflect the area it governs for. Success at Northern Ireland’s first World Cup finals appearance in 1958 did prompt some to call for a change in the name of the team. The bus to collect the team at Malmö in Sweden flew the Irish tricolour and was reprimanded by the IFA for doing so who stated they were not the FAI. At a shop close to the Northern Ireland training camp, there was a photograph of the Irish team displayed, except it was an FAI and not an IFA team. Northern Ireland did remarkably well in the tournament, reaching the quarter-final stages. So frustrated were some with the lack of political capital gained from the team’s showing with most countries referring to them as Ireland and not Northern Ireland, there were calls for the first time north of the border for the team to be known as Northern Ireland in future.
By the early 1970s and despite the escalation in violence in Northern Ireland that led to Derry City abandoning the (Northern) Ireland Football League in 1972, there was a desire within the FAI and IFA to co-operate more closely. As well as discussing the prospect of reunion, both associations embraced all-Ireland competitions such as the Blaxnit and the Texaco tournaments and supported joint efforts in education and coaching for schools and referees. Although the talks ultimately failed, there was a genuine desire for an all-Ireland solution to be reached by both associations, particularly by the FAI. There would not have been as many conferences between the IFA and the FAI if there was no desire. At least nine were held between 1973 and 1980, seven from 1978 to 1980.
Factors that brought an end to the talks included money - the financial dilemma the halving of revenue from international fixtures would cause - and the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland. A vicious riot at a European Cup tie between Linfield and Dundalk at the latter’s ground, Oriel Park, in 1979 highlighted the closeness of football to the Northern conflict. It was conceded that a football solution could not be found until such time as a political solution to Northern Ireland was achieved.
Success also proved an obstacle to an all-Ireland team. The Northern Irish soccer team won the British Home Championship in 1980 and 1984, the last year the oldest ever international competition was held. The IFA still retains the trophy. Under Billy Bingham, the international side also qualified for the World Cups of 1982 and 1986, causing one of the biggest upsets in the 1982 competition by defeating the host nation, Spain. The results Northern Ireland was experiencing led Harry Cavan to comment, ‘with results like we have had over the last two years, who needs a United Irish soccer side?’ In 1988, the Republic of Ireland made its introduction at international tournaments at the European Championship in West Germany. In qualifying for the World Cups in 1990 and 1994, the southern body had overtaken its Northern rival on the field. It also would lessen the appetite from the FAI for unity. Louis Kilcoyne, the FAI president, commenting in 1995 on the prospect of re-union stated, ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’.
Fortunes for both teams have dwindled since. Despite both Irish teams qualifying for the European Championships next year, Northern Ireland’s first appearance in thirty years, the current teams are a pale reflection on teams past. It is correct to laud both teams for qualifying for Euro 2016. It would be premature, though, in heralding this as the dawn of a new golden era. With almost half of UEFA’s membership qualifying for Euro 2016, a more realistic test of how strong both Irish teams are will come at the tournament in France next year and future World Cup qualifying tournaments. Lack of success in the future might see a renewal of talks to consider an all-Ireland team. A recent University of Ulster study, Social Exclusion and Sport in Northern Ireland contends that a majority of people in Northern Ireland (54%) support an all-Ireland football team, including 39% from the Protestant community. This may also prompt the IFA and FAI to re-engage and bring about one football team on this small island yet again.
Cormac Moore is the author of the The Irish Soccer Split published by Cork University Press.