Euro 2022: Why only ‘God Save the Queen’ is played when Northern Ireland plays England

Each side belts out their anthem, accompanied by their fans in the crowd; shoulders are back, heads are held high, eyes sometimes fill with salty tears at the sound of the patriotic appeal.

The other two countries that make up the United Kingdom have their own national anthems for sporting events not held under the flag of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Wales has “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (“Land of my Fathers”) and Scotland has “The Flower of Scotland”. But in this case, England and Northern Ireland will share God Save the Queen.

Different anthems for different sports

This quirk of the draw sheds light on the complex identity of the Northern Ireland national team.
More recently – between 1968 and 1998 – a period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles” claimed more than 3,500 lives, according to the Sutton Index of Deaths.

The Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) helped end decades of conflict between nationalists who wanted a united Ireland and loyalists who wanted to remain part of the UK.

These differing political views largely coincided with religious beliefs, with Protestants favoring Unionism and Catholic nationalism.

According to the 2011 census, the population of Northern Ireland is 49% Protestant and other Christian, 45% Catholic, 6% non-religious and 1% did not declare their religion. According to the ARK Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2019, 33% of people considered themselves unionists, 23% identified themselves as nationalists, while 39% identified themselves as neither.
“Surveys will tell you that there is a developing sense of a Northern Irish national identity, but there is no song that sums it up or can be seen as such [it]’ Paul Rouse – who wrote Sport and Ireland: A History – tells CNN Sport.

Northern Ireland has multiple national anthems used across different sports, as well as different configurations of its teams – a relic of how each sport has bridged this divide.

Each of these songs occupies a slightly different position in Northern Ireland’s political landscape.

In rugby, where the team plays as united Ireland, the Republic of Ireland’s national anthem ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ (‘The Soldier’s Song’) is played at home matches, alongside the specially commissioned, more inclusive ‘Ireland’s Call’ played at will play both home and away games.

'Imagine how good it could be': Northern Ireland footballers ready to seize their moment
At the Commonwealth Games, the Northern Ireland anthem is ‘Londonderry Air’, while at football the anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ – with its associations with the British royal family – is linked to the Unionist tradition.
“You know, it’s pretty sad. Northern Ireland doesn’t really have an identity of its own,” said Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan in a documentary last year.

“Unfortunately, as a Catholic player, I don’t have the experience to stand up and sing the anthem as loud as possible.

“But it doesn’t take away from the pride and passion and what it means to put on the green shirt. It takes someone to think outside the box, doesn’t it? And brave enough to push it forward.”

“What would happen to international sport in Ireland?”

Historically each major sport has found a slightly different place in the Northern Ireland landscape.

“The emergence of the modern sporting world happened in the 19th century… And when that happened, Ireland wasn’t divided,” says Rouse.

When Northern Ireland was officially formed on 3 May 1921 after the Irish War of Independence, athletics, rugby and football teams represented the whole island.

“The question immediately arose as to what would happen to international sport in Ireland,” says Rouse. “And that varies from sport to sport.”

The Football Association of Ireland (IFA) was and is based in Belfast – the historic heartland of football where it first came to Ireland.

The history of the Northern Ireland football team is complex.

Unlike rugby, whose governing body was based in Dublin and whose structures allowed more regional autonomy, football split with the formation of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) in Dublin in 1921.

The IFA and FAI initially both fielded international teams called Ireland and selected players from both north and south of the border until the demands of World Cup qualifying competitions in the 1950s forced the teams to split entirely.

Tensions flared during ‘The Troubles’, such as when a 1979 European Cup match between the border town of Dundalk and Linfield, a club closely associated with Unionism, was marred by riots.

But the success of the Northern Ireland squad at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, featuring players from both communities, showed how football could sometimes transcend political divisions.

“We tend to focus on the rift, it wasn’t just a rift, it was a game that bonded them together,” says Rouse.

These efforts to unify football have intensified after the peace process.

In 2006, the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs received the Brussels International Supporters’ Award for supporting charities and their efforts to combat sectarianism.

Euro 2022

The Women’s Football Association of Northern Ireland (NIWFA) is a much newer organization, formed in 1976 and since then women’s football has grown exponentially in the country.

A record crowd of 15,348 thronged Windsor Park to watch the team’s World Cup qualifier against England, while around 1,200 players are currently competing across six competitive divisions, according to its website.

Its increasing popularity is in line with trends in women’s football across Europe. Euro 2022 has already set attendance records – around 450,000 tickets were sold ahead of the tournament – while more than 91,000 fans flocked to the Camp Nou twice earlier this year to see Barcelona Femení.

An official song – “Girl Got Game” by Jessica Hammond – was also released to support the team and highlight women’s football.

Julie Nelson scored Northern Ireland's first-ever goal at UEFA Women's Euro 2022.

From there, the Northern Ireland women’s team hopes to emulate the ‘spirit of 2016’ that pervaded the country when the men’s team qualified for Euro 2016.

“[We] saw the positive impact that was having,” Callaghan told Belfast Live.

It is the first time that the women’s team of Northern Ireland have qualified for a major tournament, despite a number of long-term injuries suffered by their key players.

Qualifying was an impressive feat for the team, ranked 47th in the world, with many members of the squad juggling full-time work and football.

Regardless of the outcome of Friday’s game, Northern Ireland are set to miss the knockout rounds after losing to Norway and Austria in their opening two games, but the trip leaves the players optimistic about the future.

“Northern Ireland is an amazing place and we have some amazing people,” Callaghan told Belfast Live. “Sport, including football, has always managed to bring people together.”