Northern Ireland has struggled to achieve momentum for “toleration, respect and recognition” that would help the society move towards meaningful embedding of the “appropriate normative expectations associated with equal citizenship” (McBride, 2015, p. 249). The society remains divided even two decades after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, as exemplified by the culture and practices that surround support for and endorsement of Ireland’s two ‘national’ football teams.
Before the 1980s there appeared to be a greater separation of politics and Association Football in Northern Ireland, with the cross community support for the 1982 World Cup team serving as an example of that. In the late 1980s and early 90s football became increasingly politicised, with loyalist identity becoming synonymous with support Northern Ireland, and an increasingly confident Catholic population finding greater affiliation with the Republic of Ireland (Hassan, 2002). The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, though aspiring to harmonise identities (O’Neill, 2003), has potentially served to reinforce the concept of two distinct communities defined by their political and religious affiliations.
On the surface level this appears to have created greater cultural and sporting divisions if analysing the situation through the pronouncements of public representatives on the Unionist side, and in so many young players of a Catholic background declaring adult allegiance to the Republic. However, at a deeper level, there appears to be a greater tolerance on the part of supporters with differing identities to recognise the achievements of the other side. Ultimately though, real harmony may only be attained when the symbols around football become less political and more neutral, in such areas as flags and anthems for example. There seems very little appetite for this though on any side, with each preferring to keep its own distinct identity rather than diluting them down to something more acceptable to those at the other end of the political spectrum.