Featured Special Northern Ireland report

All-Island League : the beginning of the reunification ?

The idea of a merger of the leagues of Ireland and Northern Ireland is more than ever considered. If this project called All-Island League could allow the football of both countries to grow economically, its realization remains complicated because of the local liabilities, the shadow of the Troubles still hanging over the island. Merging the Irish and the Northern Irish leagues is an idea that’s on the mind of several officials of the football federations on the island. The idea of a competition between the clubs of the two countries is not new. Since the 1940s, several tournament formats have already been set up.

Even if the football union between Ireland and Northern Ireland has already existed in different forms, the local context still hinders the official establishment of the All-Island League. The Brexit has reawakened tensions after things had calmed down since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. For a century, Northern Ireland’s political life has been highly divided. This division resulted in The Troubles, a 3-decade long conflict in which 3500 people died. But things are changing. There is a new generation that has not experienced the conflict, and many people no longer recognize themselves in extreme positions like the non-recognition of Good Friday by Loyalists. The situation could be sorted out, especially since the discussions about the creation of the All-League Island are very real.

The discussions are unofficial, and at a very sensitive stage, said Belfast Telegraph journalist Steven Beacom. UEFA wants to encourage better standards in the weaker leagues, and for them this is a way to do that. The mood in the Irish FA has also changed, with president David Martin now open to the idea, although chief executive Patrick Nelson is still opposed. According to the Northern-Irish reporter, the possibility of implementing joint leagues will be discussed at a meeting held by UEFA, which is preparing to make changes to the Champions League from 2024.

An economic purpose

The ultimate goal of the All-Island League project is to create a more competitive league to compete in the medium to long term with the big teams (English, German, Spanish, Italian and French). The Irish SSE Airtricity League and the Northern-Irish Danske Bank Premiership are only second- or third-rate leagues. No Irish or Northern Irish club, for example, has reached the group stage of the Champions League since the competition’s formula was changed in 2003-2004. Dundalk Football Club came close to reaching this stage of the competition in 2016, but in the last round of the play-off against the Polish team Legia Warsaw. Although the results in the Europa League are still better, they are far from glorious.

As a result, the Irish and Northern Irish leagues languish in 40th and 42nd place respectively in the UEFA coefficient rankings, behind small countries such as Kosovo and Latvia. “There is no viable football industry on the island of Ireland. Commercial revenues, transfer fees and results on the European stage are very low, deplores businessman and leader of the All-Island League project Kieran Lucid. We have to make a change. UEFA is a club of 55 members. But public attention and therefore commercial benefits are increasingly focused on the big five leagues, with the other 50 being left behind. As a result, we felt we had to be creative, in order to bridge that gap.« 

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