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16th Mar 2017

OPINION: Derry youngsters are being let down by allowing Northern Ireland to take them

"They're not players from Northern Ireland playing for Ireland. They're Irish"

Conan Doherty

I was asked a question the other day that was tailed with, “I didn’t mean to insult you, like”. You tend to get that too often when you’re from the north, living in Dublin.

The conversation went something like this:

– You see when you were in school and that, would they have played God Save The Queen?
– Haha. Good one.
– No, I’m actually asking.
– No, you’re not. You’re not. Are you?
– Well, do you know the way it’s technically a different country and their anthem is God Save The Queen, would that not apply in schools too?
– I went to a f**king Bunscoil so I wouldn’t have thought so.
– What about other events or like the end of nights out or anything?
– Are you for real?
– I’m just asking.
– Who, in Derry, is going to play God Save The Queen? Have you ever heard of anything that’s ever happened in Derry?
– Alright. I didn’t mean to insult you, like.

Listen, this isn’t some sort of relentless crusade to wreck up old graves but there’s still an ongoing cultural war where nationalists of the six counties are fighting to be recognised by their own. We’re only one generation gone from people actually giving their lives in a battle with the British and now, a few decades later, there’s an unfortunate divide between the north and south, at least subconsciously in the minds of some in the Republic.

The thing with a lot of Derry kids is that this isn’t really political, nor is it any kind of two fingers up to whatever establishment, that’s just who they are. They’re Irish. It isn’t a choice.

And I get it, it must be a right pain in the hole for the Northern Ireland football crew who have done so much good work in welcoming nationalists into the team and have now had success stories like Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt to put the days of Neil Lennon to bed. They’ll have more successes too hopefully.

But to top it off, they’re the ones doing a lot of the ground work with teenagers up north only for the FAI to come in and take a more complete version of that player and leave the north with nothing to show for their endeavours.

But it’s not like these players are really ‘switching allegiance’, as they call it. They’re actually just, finally, getting to go play for their preferred crest – in most cases, their country – and they would’ve done so had they been given the option sooner.

They’re not to blame because they played football in the Northern Ireland schools system and got invited to the national team at a really young age.

Northern Ireland sure as hell aren’t to blame for taking players within their jurisdiction.

The Republic need to be identifying these talents sooner and giving them the choice at a younger age. They shouldn’t allow them to go through years with another country’s coaches and another country’s facilities when it is the players themselves who will ultimately pay the price when they eventually – in most cases, inevitably – decide to move to the Republic.

They’re the ones who get the shit. They’re the ones who are insulted, called traitors, said to have abused the system and forced to live out the rest of their playing careers as the victims of scorn from a specific group.

On Monday’s Second Captains podcast, Ken Early spoke about the Aaron McEneff situation last year which had annoyed Michael O’Neill.

“Even at this time when we’ve got such a burgeoning squad, we continue to try to add to it by singing the siren song to the young players of Northern Ireland,” Early said.

“Aaron McEneff’s brother, Jordan, has also apparently switched over so no sign of slowing down on that front.”

These players of Northern Ireland are players of Ireland. John Hume saw to that with The Good Friday Agreement and there should be no slowing down on that front. These lads are Irish, it’s as simple as that and we shouldn’t be trying to change that or make out like we’re poaching players from another land.

The only thing that needs changing is how slowly the FAI are at firstly acting to talents in the north and then reacting when Northern Ireland do pick them up.

“When this subject comes up, you do feel a little bit sorry for Michael O’Neill,” Early continued.

“It’s not an easy situation but that is the situation. This is just the way it is here – if they want to play for the Republic, then they’re entitled to do that.

“It would be one thing if there was a gentleman’s agreement, if it was a case of, ‘okay, we recognise the situation but we’re not actually going to do this anymore because it’s just bad for relations and let’s agree not to do it, even though we could’. But evidently we haven’t reached that point yet.”

A gentleman’s agreement wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world but it can’t be stressed enough that Ireland are not doing wrong by taking players from Ireland. Their only failing is not taking them soon enough.

I guarantee if you told nationalist teenagers of 15 or 16 that, if they play for the north now, they can’t ever play for the Republic, then the majority of them wouldn’t play for the north in the first place. That could be your gentleman’s agreement and that would involve a lot of risk for Northern Ireland too.

But we shouldn’t stop players from declaring for the country they identify with and the one which, legally, they are attached with just because the Republic haven’t picked them up yet. Because what’s happening now is a sin on them – they’re the ones who are the real victims.

And what’s worse is that, in the Republic, some people are treating them as players from Northern Ireland playing for Ireland. Rather than players from Ireland playing for Ireland.

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