One of the most important aspects of the 1998 Agreement was that it clarified absolutely that, despite British sovereignty, by virtue of being a citizen of Northern Ireland you can be Irish by nationality. This makes Northern Ireland distinct from England, Scotland and Wales – in any of the latter, the assumed nationality is British; but in Northern Ireland, it may be British or Irish.
This is a vital distinction – and it is equally important to note that it also works the other way around. If someone is Irish by nationality, as of the 1998 Agreement this no longer automatically means an association with sovereign territory of Ireland (described as ‘the Republic of Ireland’). It means an association with either the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland.
With regards to international football, this has connotations. If you are British by nationality, you cannot just choose any of the four British teams – you have to have a further association with the relevant jurisdiction (your own birth or that of any parent or grandparent). Likewise, it follows as of 1998 that if you are Irish by nationality, you cannot just choose either of the two Irish teams – again, logically, it would follow that you have to have a further association with the relevant jurisdiction.
To be clear, this does not deny a Nationalist (of Irish nationality) the “right” to play for the Republic of Ireland, any more than it denies a Unionist (of British nationality) the “right” to play for England or Scotland. It merely means that an affiliation with the relevant jurisdiction has to be demonstrated in the normal way.
Yet here is the thing – FIFA ruled otherwise. Contrary to the clearly established rule with regard to the British teams (and in fact 25 other cases of “shared nationality”), it clarified that that rule applied but then bizarrely added one paragraph that Irish nationality alone would suffice to play for either Irish team – an inexplicable addition meaning rendering the ruling devoid of any logic whatsoever, and one which was of course bound in practice to favour the FAI (the governing body in the Republic of Ireland).
And here is the other thing – it turns out that FIFA and the FAI, well, get on rather well…
There is much to this mess about which we need to know a lot more…