Martin O’Neill: “I’m quite sure relationships will continue to blossom and Co-operation Ireland has to take credit for that.”
He’s the double European Cup Winner whose personal history sums up the interweaving relationships we all have in Ireland, not easily fitting into a simple narrative that too often defines coverage of how ordinary people live their lives from day to day.
Born into a passionate GAA family, Martin O’Neill would later go on to distinguish himself in midfield for Northern Ireland and Nottingham Forest, playing in the 1982 world cup and lifting club football’s biggest prize twice.
Away from the pitch and with little publicity, The Kilrea man has been a stalwart supporter of Co-operation Ireland for two decades, always on hand to attend events and promote the message of reconciliation and relationship building.
Martin said the ethos of Co-operation Ireland resonated with him.
“I remember the concept of working to try and get the two communities to come together, and when I talk about communities, I am talking about building relationships between Ireland and England as much as anything else, and that for me was quite important.
“I remember getting invited to a Co-operation Ireland dinner in the chairman’s house (Crosby Hall) and that was when I first got involved, around 15 years ago.”
The dinner Martin attended was held by Co-operation Ireland’s Chairman Dr Christopher Moran and attended by the charity’s joint patrons, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and then President of Ireland Mary McAleese.
In 2019, Martin was instrumental in organising a special event in Dublin’s Mansion House ahead of a friendly football match between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Both he, as manager of ROI, and Michael O’Neill who was at the helm of Northern Ireland, took part in a question and answer event hosted by Pat Kenny.
On a fabulous night both men spoke of their GAA backgrounds and how proud they were to have played for Northern Ireland, before going on to manage both international teams.
Having lived in England since his playing career, Martin says the strengthening relationships between the people of the two islands has been clear to see.
“Obviously, there’s always work to be done but the relationship between the two and the improvement over the years has been extraordinary and every little bit helps.
“If you look at the change that has taken place since the start of The Troubles in the late sixties and early seventies, if you look at where we have come to now – look at Belfast thriving again – I think the relationships are pretty decent.
“I’m not saying everyone will be happy with any particular event that takes place or occurrence but I think we’d all have to admit that the relationship has improved in 30 years.”
His hope is this continues.
“There’s always that great hope and I think that things are going on the right line. First of all it depends on our leaders.
“If the leaders are strong and have commitment then that is fine, and eventually when all of that’s said it’ll be down to the people themselves and who can predict the future? But who would’ve predicted all the changes that have taken place not only in the North but in the South?”
Martin says he believes the work of Co-operation Ireland has aided this, and that is why he is an active participant in our work.
“What the charity is trying to do is for a noble cause and I’m quite sure relationships will continue blossom as they have been and Co-operation Ireland has to take credit for that.”