Former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair was keen on the idea of moving then-Premier League club Wimbledon to Belfast in the late 1990s.
The previously secret state papers include a memorandum from 1997 described as “a follow-up to previous informal discussions about the possibility of a Premier League football club moving to Belfast”.
It was said that it would be a “major achievement if Belfast were a football team playing in the English Premier League”.
The memo also said such a move “should be able to build strong support across the community and provide a positive unifying force in a divided city.”
Another suggestion was that the move would bring about a modern, 40,000-seat, privately funded sports stadium, and perhaps a sports academy, located on Queen's Island in east Belfast or the North Foreshore site in the north of the city.
The memo suggested that Wimbledon would undergo a name change to Belfast United.
The club needed to move from its Plow Lane stadium after the publication of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster in 1990, which recommended clubs move towards all-seater stadiums.
Plow Lane was deemed unfit for redevelopment and the following year the club moved to share the ground with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, but owner Sam Hammam was also considering moving the club to Dublin – a move rejected by League of Ireland clubs. In the year 1998.
Wimbledon were relegated from the Premier League in 2000, an FA arbitration hearing in 2002 gave the club permission to move to Milton Keynes in 2004 and they were renamed MK Dons.
Supporters of the old Wimbledon club formed a new club, AFC Wimbledon, which started in 2002 in the Combined Counties Premier League – then in the ninth tier of English football – and reached the Football League in 2011.
They now play in League Two out of a stadium close to the original Plow Lane.
Details of the memo relating to Wimbledon were leaked to the Belfast Telegraph which then published a story saying that then Foreign Secretary Mo Mowlam was supporting the idea, which it was hoped would bring new investment to Northern Ireland and boost its image on the international stage. .
However, the article also noted that local football bosses in Northern Ireland were concerned that it would “kill the game in Northern Ireland”.
In addition to Ms Mowlam, Downing Street also showed interest in the proposal, with a memo written by then-principal press secretary Alastair Campbell explaining that Wimbledon owner Hammam had “explored the possibility of moving Wimbledon to Dublin, but this appears to have reached that point”. “nothing”.
He added that Hammam had seen media reports about Northern Ireland's interest and “was keen to know whether the matter was serious or just speculation that led to nothing.”
A memorandum dated 16 July 1998 – a few months after the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement – indicates that Blair was keen on this idea.
Blair's view was recorded as: “It would be excellent if Wimbledon were moved to Belfast, and we should encourage that as much as possible.”
However, another memo, dated 17 August 1998, described the matter as being at a “sensitive stage”, recording that Irish football authorities “continue to strongly resist the idea”.
She said local newspapers welcomed him, and that TV presenter Eamonn Holmes “was active in gathering public support.”
“If the Irish football authorities are to amend their position, this will have to be achieved through domestic pressure, perhaps with the Government remaining in the background,” the memo said, as well as suggesting that Mr Hammam should be encouraged to visit Belfast “in order to assess the seriousness of his interest.”
A letter to Ms Mowlam in April 1999, by a member of Bringing Premier League Football to Northern Ireland, detailed ongoing discussions but noted continuing opposition from the football authorities in Northern Ireland.
They wrote that “difficult, intense, open and honest debate, debate and negotiations are needed”, but said the award was “already great and potentially wonderful. It is a situation analogous to the peace process.”
Jim Boyce, who was president of the Irish Football Association at the time, told Radio 5 Live on Thursday that the idea was “pie in the sky”.
“We were asked to meet civil servants when the idea came up – I have been involved in football in Northern Ireland for almost 70 years and have done more to bring communities together in this county than politicians ever did,” he said.
“It would have killed local football and the people who put a lot of effort into local football at the time, the viewers of the local football clubs, clearly had no interest in this at all.
“I think it was honestly just a publicity stunt. And as it proved, as I said at the time this was discussed, Wimbledon are in the Premier League. Yes, for many people who were not local football fans of course, it was It could be so. It was great to see Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham come to Northern Ireland.
“but what [would] It will happen in a few years if they are not in the Premier League, as they have been. “For me, honestly, it was cake in the sky and I’m glad Mo Mowlam put a stop to it as there were people trying to create publicity.”
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