Northern Ireland should have been celebrating like a striker who has just scored after it was selected as a venue for the Euro 2028 football tournament.
By then, the region hopes to be celebrating 30 years of peace — as long without conflict as the Troubles themselves lasted.
But even before construction begins at the Casement Park stadium, chosen as the venue for five matches as part of a joint UK and Ireland bid to host the tournament, a row has erupted that is exposing enduring divisions between Northern Ireland’s “green” nationalist and “orange” unionist traditions.
The home of Gaelic games in Northern Ireland, Casement Park is derelict and needs a £120mn makeover to be ready for the Euros. However, some soccer fans say that not only does the plan far exceed the cost of upgrades to the region’s football and rugby venues, but it will bring more benefit to traditionally nationalist sports — Gaelic football, hurling and camogie.
The spat is a sign that while peace may have transformed many things in Northern Ireland, deep political and social divisions over nationalist and unionist identities remain.
“We have the opportunity 30 years after the Good Friday Agreement [peace deal] to have the Euros, the second most prestigious football competition in the world, coming to us,” Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster university, told BBC Northern Ireland.
“Can you imagine the tourism, the media attention? And we turn it into an orange and green issue! It’s absolutely extraordinary.”
The issue of identity extends to sport. Both communities play soccer but the national football ground, Windsor Park, is in a largely unionist area of Belfast, while Gaelic games form part of the nationalist identity.
Even the names of the stadiums reflect each community’s different history: Windsor Park recalls the British royal family, while Casement Park is named after an Irish nationalist hero.
“I do think it would be very difficult to defend . . . if you have what should be a footballing legacy project and football doesn’t benefit,” said Gregory Campbell, a former Northern Ireland sports minister from the Democratic Unionist Party, the biggest pro-UK grouping.
The Irish Football Association, founded in 1880 when Britain ruled the whole of Ireland, supports using Casement Park but has said spades need to be in the ground by May for the stadium to be ready for the June 2028 event.
However, the Amalgamation of Official NI Supporters’ Clubs (Aonisc), which was founded in 1998, the year the Troubles ended, insists football tournaments should be held in football stadiums rather than a Gaelic games ground like Casement Park.
At a meeting with the IFA in December, Aonisc raised concerns over “the exclusion of the National Stadium, Windsor Park, the need for delivery of a lasting legacy and an increased financial package for local football”.
Complicating the picture still further, one of the Casement Park contractors has gone bust and its joint-venture partner will not proceed with the project.
Gary McAllister, Aonisc chair, said: “The questions outstanding for us are: what is the cost of building Casement Park? Who’s going to build it? Will it be ready in time?
“The other aspect is: where is football’s legacy? Where is the additional investment for football? And why can’t we host games in our own national stadium?”
Trevor Ringland, a former rugby star from a unionist background who co-organised a rugby peace international in 1996, said the row was detracting from the reconciliation Northern Irish football fans had achieved.
“They challenged sectarian songs that used to be sung and they changed from [Britain’s] red, white and blue on the terraces to creating the “Green and White Army” [supporters club] which has been welcomed around the world,” he said.
The Euros could also give a financial boost to the region, which is one of the UK’s poorest, added Ringland.
Patrick Nelson, IFA chief executive, said Windsor Park was too small to be a Euro candidate and that there was “no route to fund an expansion”. It was either Casement Park or “no ambition” for regional football, he said.
In 2006, Northern Ireland unveiled plans to build a sporting venue shared between football, rugby and Gaelic games on the site of the notorious Maze prison where pro-Irish unity republican and pro-UK loyalist paramilitaries were jailed during the Troubles.
But three years later, the plans were scrapped after a lack of political consensus. Upgrades to Windsor Park and the Ravenhill rugby stadium went ahead, but Casement Park ran into planning problems.
Funding for Casement Park’s upgrade is expected to come from the UK government, the Gaelic Athletic Association (the governing body for Irish national sports), Northern Ireland’s own public finances and the Irish government.
Claire Hanna of the small nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party, said there would be “no greater legacy” than capitalising on Euro 2028 to unlock long-promised funding for smaller football stadiums.
The IFA’s Nelson said hosting the tournament would be a “pivotal moment for football and society”.
But in Northern Ireland, the past has still not been consigned to history even as the region looks to the future.
“Legacy can take many forms,” Nelson said. “Given that people here are still on a journey after a difficult past, it would be a shame if we missed the opportunity for better engagement between communities.”