The IFA's decision not to invite Jason Smyth, Paddy Barnes or Michael Conlan to the opening of the new Windsor Park stadium flies in the face of all the good work being done to unite the Northern Ireland football community.
Ireland in the World Cup, either North or South,
The fan club on the duke box, the birds and, yes, the bees.
This is all I ever wanted from life, this is all I ever wanted from life...
Snow Patrol, 'Lifening'
Gary Lightbody, who penned these fine words, strode onto the Windsor Park pitch on Saturday, in the beautiful new 'national stadium', to the applause of the Northern Ireland fans. Alongside him were James Nesbitt, Mary Peters, Carl Frampton and paralympian Bethany Firt,h among others. All of these figures are held in huge esteem by Northern Irish men and women. They manage both to reach the stars, to touch greatness, and to connect with the man and woman on the street. Their achievements and conduct, what they bring to the world, make us puff out our chests and declare, in our thickest and most incomprehensible northern brogue, that we are damn proud to be Northern Irish, damn proud to be from the North of Ireland. Whatever way you prefer to declare it, you are expressing the same sense of belonging, the same pride of place.
Not a single person from Northern Ireland would dispute that Mick Conlan, Paddy Barnes, Jason Smyth (who is Mormon) and Michael McKillop belong in the company of the aforementioned. And in not placing them in that company on Saturday, the Irish Football Association made a horrendous mistake. In not crowning what is - quite literally - a fresh start, a new stadium (to go alongside a new campaign, a new generation of fans and a new sense of rejuvenation in the Northern Irish national side) with the highest-profile sportsmen from both sides of the community, the IFA have threatened to undo their own good work.
(For sake of clarity, the IFA claim that they had invited McKillop via his agent, but the athlete's agent did not seem to have any recollection of this.)
The IFA's 'Football For All' project was launched in the year 2000 in order to try and tackle sectarianism in Northern Ireland through sport. A few years ago, EU Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn said the following of the project:
Bringing together key partners from both the private and public sectors, the project has played a central role to get real progress in community relations in football. Not only has 'Football For All' made a meaningful difference locally, but we also see it as a model which other countries around Europe can learn from and aspire to.
And there is no doubt that there is a far, far more welcoming atmosphere in Windsor Park compared to the rancid and sectarian atmosphere it used to foster. There is more and more willingness to support Northern Ireland within what one might term the 'Irish Catholic' community, thanks to the presence of figures from that 'side' of the community - like manager Michael O'Neill and Euro 2016 goalscorer Niall McGinn - as part of the side, thanks to initiatives like the aforementioned and thanks to the open and welcoming nature of the Northern Irish fans.
Speaking to Off the Ball during the Euros, BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Colin Murray, a hardcore Northern Ireland fan who reported on their exploits during the tournament for Talksport, had the following to say about the 'new' fanbase of Northern Ireland:
We've come from a point, I would say 1998...we looked towards a different Northern Ireland. It wasn't a bunch of great thinkers and professors who'd never been to a football match that said, 'We want things to change at Windsor Park, we want it to be a different place.'
It was the amalgamation of Northern Ireland supporters club, it was the 'Sea of Green' initiative (set up by Michael Boyd in 2004), it was 'Football For All'...there's been such a sea change, and it had to happen within the fan base themselves, and success on the pitch has helped as well.
We've been trying so hard to highlight all the good things that go on with Northern Ireland fans, and with the IFA...every fanbase has its percentage of wingnuts. But we are so beyond that.
I wrote back in June about the need to change the national anthem of the Northern Ireland football team from 'God Save The Queen' to something representing both sides of the community, and that I would feel uneasy in Windsor Park until that happened. The response to the piece was mixed to say the least, with many people feeling that I was being petty to focus on an anthem and caught up in semantics when I should have just accepted the way things were. That I was behind the times.
But to me it's not just semantics. I want desperately for the team to accurately represent and reflect fans from all across the community. I want people from every single race, religion and creed to feel equally welcome at Windsor Park. And so, when a message is sent out from those in charge of Northern Irish football that goes against that desire for equality, it drives me up the wall.
But it is not too late to make amends for this particular cock-up. The IFA have said of Smyth that they "would be delighted to welcome Jason to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park in the future".
We hope they are true to their word. Before Northern Ireland's next home game, against Azerbaijan on 11th November, the IFA should present McKillop and Smyth to the home fans. Send out a clear message that brings the IFA alongside the vast majority of Northern Ireland fans and the team itself in being completely open to the whole community. Send out a message that the new Windsor Park is a place we can all share, something we can all enjoy.