Gráinne Daly examines the possibility of an all-island football league
In 1920 Irish football was run on a 32-county basis as it had been since the foundation of the Irish Football Association (IFA) forty years earlier. A year later, prompted by a dispute between the soccer administrations of Leinster and Ulster, the Leinster Football Association separated from its parent body, the IFA, subsequently forming the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). Almost a century on the division remains.
UCD alumnus Cormac Moore deserves much credit for the depth and breadth of his research into the history of soccer on our island. His fascinating book The Irish Soccer Split, (Cork University Press: 2015) and his recently published Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Mercier Press: 2019) chart the history of sport on the island. In The Irish Soccer Split, Moore details the numerous efforts made during the 1920s and early 1930s to repair the divide. During the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s there were further attempts to bring about soccer unity in the form of an all-Ireland international team. Some efforts came close but none close enough.
A new campaign is afloat, once again aiming to address the issue. The All-Island Advocacy Group is working to bring about an all-island league that would involve the merger of both leagues north and south: the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) and the League of Ireland. The group’s Twitter bio states that they are “exploring club football on the island of Ireland and the merits of an All-island League that respects the independence of the 2 national teams and associations.” Under the stewardship of tech entrepreneur Kieran Lucid, the group have appointed Dutch sports consultancy Hypercube to assist with their campaign. Speaking on Hypercube’s success in reforming the Danish and Dutch leagues, Lucid said that “the Danish league has been a big influence on us, because Denmark has a population of 1m people less than the island of Ireland, and also because its TV deal is in excess of 50 million euros a year, which is going to rise to 60 million.”
The group is hoping to facilitate agreement for a cross-border hybrid league that would involve a 14-team top division and two regional leagues beneath the top flight, linked by promotion and relegation. Their case being that it would lead to a stronger competition on the island which in turn would churn commercial benefits through the resulting sponsorship and TV revenue. The plan includes a proposal that the winners of a new all-island league get prize money of €800,000, bringing winnings in line with European counterparts. In 2019, Dundalk pocketed €120,000 for winning the SSE Airtricity league and when compared with Celtic’s paycheque of £3,350,000 for winning the Scottish Premier League, it makes a case for exploring the viability of an improved league.
The group have been in talks to get support for their plans, with a large number of clubs attending a recent series of stakeholder meetings in Dublin, Dundalk and Belfast. There is enthusiasm for the proposals with Niall Quinn suggesting that the FAI’s newly minted administration would be supportive. The outgoing Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, has also spoken in favour: “I am very supportive of cross-border sporting initiatives and collaborations between sporting organisations. Such approaches have excellent potential to enhance relationships on both parts of the island of Ireland. I would encourage the bodies to continue to facilitate opportunities for cross-border cooperation and competition.”
But of course there are also opponents. The IFA’s CEO, Patrick Nelson, said it wouldn’t sanction the involvement of its clubs, “having listened to the proposals from Mr. Lucid and his team, we believe the best interests of our member clubs and football in Northern Ireland are better served by remaining with the club-led model established in 2013 via the Northern Ireland Football League.” Ballymena and Cliftonville clubs have spoken out against the proposals with Cliftonville’s chairman and vice-chair for the NIFL, Gerard Lawlor, denouncing them as a “pipe dream” and “unrealistic at this moment in time.”
In response to the announcement by the IFA, Kieran Lucid said that “the work will continue” and confirmed that they intend to proceed with their plans. While the group’s goal of having an agreement in place by 2021 may be overly ambitious their commitment to improving the status of Irish football is commendable. Speaking to the University Observer Cormac Moore said "Kieran Lucid's plans to inaugurate an all-Ireland league, if successful, would be a great boost to the sport of soccer on the island. I believe clubs, north and south, would benefit greatly by such a league, through major improvements in finances and the quality of football on offer.”
What remains to be seen is if those in power in the northern and southern footballing bodies are willing to look for the potential beyond partition.