A “Northern Ireland” team for everything?

Here is an interesting petition advocating a Northern Ireland team for all sports played internationally.

It seems a simple and sensible enough case, and to be clear it is one with which I am instinctively very comfortable. In most sports, countries have their own team; and sharing in the trials and tribulations of a shared Northern Ireland team would help build a Northern Irish identity (and a potentially shared and inclusive one at that).

However, a bit like the case for a Northern Ireland flag, I do not think it is as simple as that.

The census tells us that “Northern Irish(ness)” is a concept with which those of a broadly Nationalist background are increasingly comfortable. However, this may well be for quite different reasons from the “Northern Irishness” as expressed by those of a more Unionist persuasion. This distinction remains relevant; for it may be that it is precisely the ability to lead an “all-Ireland” life culturally (including in most sports) while not having to bother with the complexities of merging distinct economies and losing the NHS which makes those of a Nationalist background more content than ever with the designation “Northern Irish”. Ironically, therefore, it may be that by cutting off an all-Ireland aspect of their lives previously taken for granted (in sports such as rugby, hockey or cricket) that in fact the burgeoning and shared “Northern Irish” identity would be restricted and damaged.

(That is to leave quite aside the fact that people in Northern Ireland are not compelled to support a “Northern Ireland” team just because one exists. It can, in fact, be just as divisive as anything else.)

There are practical issues with having no Northern Ireland team in some sports, that is for sure. World rankings, for example, assume that the “Great Britain” Olympic hockey team is made up of players from England, Scotland and Wales (which each otherwise has its own team), leaving Northern Irish players coming up through an all-Ireland set-up to jump through hoops if they wish to play for it (as many do; they are British and there is a serious medal chance as part of the British team, but none realistically as part of an Irish one); a specific Northern Ireland team would be practically useful there (with players at Olympic level then free to opt for “Great Britain and NI” or “Ireland”).

On the other hand, there are practical reasons in some sports that you would never even consider a separate Northern Ireland team. In cricket, for example, there is already a combined West Indies team and actually a combined England and Wales team; so why, particularly as it challenges for test status over the next few years, would anyone contemplate breaking up a perfectly adequate combined all-Ireland team?

Even beyond practicalities, some sports already serve the range of identities relatively well. People of “Northern Irish” identity will have little difficulty in rugby union supporting Ulster (in the Pro12), Ireland (in the Six Nations) and the British Isles (on tour). Even golfers can on occasions represent Northern Ireland (in individual tournaments), on other occasions Ireland (in the World Cup), on other occasions Great Britain and Ireland (in the Walker/Curtis Cup or Seve Trophy), and on others Europe (in the Ryder/Solheim Cup).

There is also a reality that sports where there is a Northern Ireland team – notably football, snooker and the Commonwealth Games – still need to do more in terms of symbols and anthems to make those teams genuinely inclusive. (That is not to deny great strides have been made; nor is that problem confined the Northern Ireland teams – all-Ireland teams have a similar problem.)

To be clear, I would personally like to see a Northern Ireland team in more sports. But then, I would also like to see an agreed flag. However, there are reasons of history, politics and even theology that we have divided identities in this place, and that many would genuinely disagree with me on that point. This cannot be overcome merely by a mixture of enforced change and wishful thinking.


14 thoughts on “A “Northern Ireland” team for everything?

  1. I think we need to respect the separate political independence and organisational capacity of sporting organisation. Sport, the figures within sport and the supporters determine the direction of the Sport.

    All-Ireland sport teams and organisations make sense, but so does the Belfast Giants competing in the British Ice Hockey league. We have the Catalan Dragons competing in what is effectively a British Rugby League division, and Ulster competing against Italians in what used to be defined as the Celtic League.

    A DUP MLA complained about no Northern Irish rugby Sevens team at the Commonwealth game. How many Irish nationalists were complaining about the lack of any all-Ireland Rugby Sevens team in Rugby Sevens competition.

    Rugby Sevens is organised as a different sport, Ireland simply isn’t competitive at a national or Ulster at a provincial level. Surely we would be better focusing on the grassroots problem of the sport, rather than the jingoism of the spectacle of a sport.

    Convenience is the bedrock of sport. We had an all-Ireland football team even past partition before politics made the split with the IFA team being the original. Northern Irish teams are not going to cut the island of Ireland in two or change the political opinions of a section of the population.

    The big problem with smaller organisations is that they can become less competitive, particularly if they lose access to international competition. Look at the decline of both the League of Ireland and the Irish League, in comparison to say similar sized national leagues in Europe. Northern Ireland flirts with being outside the bottom 50 in a 54 nation association (even below one in Liechtenstein that doesn’t have a league but sends its teams to Switzerland and competes in Europe only with its regional cup winner), while the Republic is not that much further up at times.

    Look at the West Indies Cricket Team, made up of 9 independent nations and 5 dependent territories, including one which is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands who have their own Cricket Team in Sint Maarten.

    Sport is not about national laws, or tax collection, or trade legislation or heads of states or political chambers … it’s about teams and individuals having fun. People need to remember that.

    Rather than gerrymander the teams on a political basis, surely we can objectively argue from a practical point of view what works.

  2. should read Netherlands (who have their own Cricket Team)

  3. Marc says:

    It is absolute FARCE that ALL sports don’t represent Northern Ireland, by not creating this idea it highlights the lack of equality.

    • Good to have you on here Marc!

      Can you explain further? What would you say to someone on the terraces at Ravenhill who simply doesn’t see the problem?

    • Why does nearly 100 year old Northern Ireland get a team and 1000 year old Bavaria get none in pretty much any sport? Northern Ireland is not a sovereign nation of its own.

      The biggest farce we have here is people complaining to sporting officials about …

      “games they have no vested interest in”

      … telling the administers of those games how to do their job, when they’d struggle to name even one person who plays that sport in the entire world, Cricket and Rugby Union aside.

      Would it really be good for Northern Irish Cricket and Northern Irish Rugby if the all-Ireland teams and leagues were to be split in the same way that Football was?

      Would it be better for the likes of Belfast Harlequins to be playing City of Derry on a regular basis rather than Lansdowne or Garyowen?

      Let’s go back to bottom line in sport …

      Why would people want to watch and participate in this arrangement?

      …It’d be a bit like asking Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham to rejoin the league of Wales, (or Glamorgan to leave English county cricket). The National Team of Wales would probably suffer, and Welsh people may no longer want to watch cricket.

      Similarly Commonwealth Northern Ireland teams would struggle if they weren’t in all-Ireland competition, that generally competes against the best of British on a regular basis anyway.

      The Northern Ireland teams that do exist are because are those with the popularity to survive on that basis, such as snooker, golf, association football … those that default to the prepartition all-Ireland status.

      Plus thanks to the Garrison Games approach of Irish nationalism the major three sports of Association Football, Rugby Union and Cricket, Team Ireland was virtually Team Northern Ireland anyway.

      Most sports in Northern Ireland can’t exactly piggy back on a Premier League to develops its players. Most of these sports simply don’t have the grassroots activity for international competition, Ireland doesn’t have the grassroots activity to compete at Rugby Sevens never mind Northern Ireland.

      Playing teams from down the road, even playing in teams from down the road is pragmatic.

      In North America many American sport leagues have Canadian teams, in Australian leagues there are New Zealand teams. Couldn’t care less about the international borders.

      Sporting politics should be separate to national politics, sport needs to get bums on seats, people playing the game and television rights … it doesn’t deal with matters such as border control, tax evasion and defense.

  4. Reminded me of a conversation I had last week with an Northern Ireland expat in Scotland, working for the National Library of Scotland. We pondered why there is no National Library of Northern Ireland…

    • Yes. It’s a technicality, but when I published my book I was required (well, recommended) to deposit it there, and at the British Library, and at Trinity College. I was not, however, required to do anything in Wales or Northern Ireland.

      Many of these things are vestiges of the three kingdoms,
      Of course…

  5. Chris Roche says:

    A guy who supports Northern Ireland WROTE A BOOK? Is there much money in pop-up books these days?

  6. “The census tells us that “Northern Irish(ness)” is a concept with which those of a broadly Nationalist background are increasingly comfortable.”

    Can you provide a link to where you found this analysis because it seems to be counter to what I have seen in the Life and Times survey. I just did a quick analysis of the data from 1996-2014 to confirm this.

    Although there is a statistically significant increase in unionist preference for the Northern Irish identity (although this has gone down a lot in recent years) there is none for nationalists. Nationalist preference for this has remained about 20% since the beginning.

    If you like I can email a graph as I can’t seem to do that here.


    • Or I could tweet the graph if you prefer.

    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for that. The article didn’t concern the Unionist preference.

      Actually, NILT does show a slight increase, but is also startlingly unreliable. Look at party political support, for example, and you will see the harder line parties on nowhere near their actual support levels and vice-versa.

      I’m going from the census – much more reliable, as it asks 1.8m people for a start! There, remarkably, only 55% of those ticking “Catholic background” also ticked “Irish identity” (even though it was multi-choice); of the remaining 45% most ticked “Northern Irish” (bearing in mind that some of the 55% did too).

      Although we have no direct comparator, I think it obvious that those figures are dramatically different from what they would have been in, say, 1996.

      (Perhaps, of course, a significant number of those voting Nationalist always felt comfortable with “Northern Irish” – I doubt it, but actually it makes no material difference to the article either way!)

      • I’ve just had a look at the census from 2011. Only 27% of Catholics said Northern Irish only, which is very similar to NILT (25% in 2010). This goes up to 31% if you include Northern Irish along with something else, which isn’t an option on NILT.

        I would say there are methodological issues with the census too- for example are children in a family defined as a national identity too? This could be problematic. Also I wouldn’t expect the NILTS to give accurate predictions of election results as it includes the people who aren’t going to vote too.

        Either way I’m yet to see evidence of the ‘rise of the Northern Irish’ that is talked about in the media quite a bit.

      • I always include Northern Irish alongside something else, because that’s what I ticked 🙂

  7. Whole thread can be summed up in one question, “Where’s the business case?”

    Only business case is in association football which is heavily reliant on English and Scottish clubs to develop professional players for both sides of the island.

    For people to suggest a Northern Ireland boxing association, that will probably have nationalist area clubs buy out of and hence would make Derry City’s decision to leave the Irish League look like small fry. That’d mean a Northern Ireland association having to pay more for fights in Britain and having to go through more paperwork for many fights in Ireland too.

    Worse case scenario the ecumenical bloodsport for Northern Ireland would simply cause division and lower competitiveness.

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