Why Northern Ireland continue to pay the price for abuse dished out to Neil Lennon

The dubious and flawed campaign by Northern Irish football authorities aimed at preventing young footballers from Catholic/Nationalist backgrounds in the province playing for the Republic of Ireland always evades the central issue.

The big question that mysteriously seems to escape the denizens of the Irish Football Association and their apologists is devastatingly simple:

Why does this steady and increasing stream of young footballers from the minority community - many of whom were capped at schoolboy or under-age levels - reject Northern Ireland when they approach full international level?

The answer can be summed up in just two words: Neil Lennon.

These young men still have vivid memories of the vile anti-Catholic abuse heaped on Neil Lennon by the Windsor Park bigots.

As young teenagers they remember the heinous hatred directed toward a prominent member of their own community simply because he was a Catholic and played for Celtic.

They recall that a Catholic captain of Northern Ireland was not just jeered and booed by people who were supposed to be supporting the country he had chosen to represent - but that he also was forced to quit international football because of death threats made against him.

And they know from their parents that this wasn't a new development or a one-off. Celtic defender Anton Rogan and others regularly suffered the same sort of shameful religious intolerance in the 1980s.

The IFA can hide behind smokescreens  but they need look no further than the Lennon factor to discover the reason for the talent drain to the Republic.

Forget the spurious claims about players being poached or lured south of the border by incentives - the lingering fear of sectarian abuse is the biggest single factor in turning young Catholics away from playing for the Northern Ireland senior side.

The IFA were finally forced to  tackle sectarianism in the wake of the damaging Lennon scandal but it was too little, too late to change the mindsets of young men such as Manchester United's Darron Gibson and Everton's Shane Duffy both from Derry and Portsmouth's Marc Wilson from Belfast.

The unpleasant and inconvenient truth for Northern Ireland's football chiefs is that their sport unlike rugby union which unites both Catholic and Protestant in Ireland remains divided down sharp political and sectarian lines.

Support for the Northern Ireland football team is overwhelmingly loyalist and Protestant, while the Catholic/Nationalist population - which now has the right of Irish citizenship - are largely fans of the Republic of Ireland.

Kids in Belfast and Derry grow up supporting two different national teams and the chances of genuine integration in the North were badly damaged by the sectarianism at Northern Ireland games that wasn't properly tackled until 2002.

Progress has been made in trying to make Northern Ireland an all-inclusive team, but it is painfully slow.

It is one thing because of travel, geography and financial considerations for Catholic youngsters whose passport are Irish rather than British to play for schoolboy or under-age Northern Ireland teams.

But it is a much more daunting prospect as a young Catholic, Irish passport holder to run out for the senior side to the strains of "God Save The Queen"  and fluttering Union flags,in front of thousands of Windsor Park fans whose repertoire until recently was virulently anti-Catholic.

Not surprisingly growing numbers of the new generation of young Catholics are using their legitimate right - recognized by FIFA and the governments of Ireland and Britain - to play their football for the Republic in the more welcoming and culturally-friendly environs of Croke Park.

It is both bizarre and arrogant that Ulster football chiefs think they can prevent young Irish passport holders from playing for the Republic.

The IFA insists it will go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in an attempt to prevent players born in their jurisdiction opting for the Republic.

Exactly how a sporting court can over-turn the Good Friday Agreement or a decision made by the British and Irish governments appears to defy conventional logic.

As is the implication that they can dragoon unwilling Catholics into a set-up that a decade ago had vocal sections demanding religious apartheid.

Northern Ireland are not only wasting their time with this insensitive and counter-productive action, but are in danger of driving future generations of young men who see themselves as Irish towards the Republic team.

The Good Friday Agreement gave all the citizens of the six counties the right to decide whether they were Irish, British or both. That freedom of choice seems to sit uneasily with the IFA agenda.

Perhaps FIFA or the Court of Arbitration for Sport could point them down the path to enlightenment followed by the all-Ireland rugby team and suggest a merger with the Republic to form a truly national side encompassing all 32 counties and all communities on the island of Ireland.

Sound familiar? It should. Neil Lennon suggested an all-Ireland team a few years back and was howled down by the curse of intolerance.

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williamhill.com

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