I was intending to write about Brexit again this month, but the dreadful conundrum of Brexit and the Irish border is going to be with us for some time, so I am going to turn to a far cheerier and more immediate subject: our magnificent all-Ireland rugby team.
On St Patrick’s Day in Quinn’s bar in Newcastle, Co Down, I watched the demolition of a powerful English fifteen by the finest Irish team I have ever seen (I attended my first England-Ireland rugby international in 1962). Judging by the number of tricolours in the pub I was among a largely nationalist crowd. But Irish Times reporter Amanda Ferguson quoted unionists in Belfast pubs saying adamantly that there was no contradiction in people from their background cheering for the Irish team. “I’m Irish first, British second. I don’t see why anyone would find that strange. I support Ireland,” was a typical comment.
As Trevor Ringland – former international winger, Ulster Unionist parliamentary candidate and reconciliation activist – puts it: “We in Northern Ireland are able to move between different identities. I support Ulster rugby, all nine Ulster GAA counties, Northern Ireland football, Ireland rugby, the British and Irish Lions and Europe’s Ryder Cup team.” It’s a sporting version of what the poet John Hewitt said over 40 years ago: “I’m an Ulsterman of planter stock. I was born on the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago are offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and, as far as I’m concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.”
There is a real richness and reconciliation in these overlapping and multiple identities. One of my happiest sporting memories was watching Ulster rugby fans, the great majority of them from a Protestant (and therefore unionist) background, being warmly congratulated and embraced by people on the streets of Dublin after their province had become the first Irish team to win the Heineken Cup European championship at Lansdowne Road in January 1999, nine months after the Good Friday Agreement.
The Irish rugby anthem, Ireland’s Call, is another example of this. Ken Blaney, a Belfast businessman, introduced himself to Amanda Ferguson as an “Irish-British person from a working class unionist background,” adding that Irish rugby, unlike GAA and soccer, transcended the North’s political divide. “I find Ireland’s Call emotional: rugby gets everyone together, it galvanises everyone.”
Again I agree. As a proud Irishman, I sing my national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, even though I consider it a 19th century dirge with outdated and vainglorious militaristic lyrics. On the other hand I sing “We have come to answer our country’s call from the four proud provinces of Ireland”, by Phil Coulter, with enormous enthusiasm. I believe its inclusive words would make it an ideal anthem for his fellow Derry man John Hume’s dreamed-of “agreed Ireland” (whenever that might happen). I get really cross when smart assed Irish Times sports writers, utterly indifferent to the need to find new symbols to help overcome this country’s deep historical divisions, launch inane attacks on the IRFU’s unifying all-Ireland song.
Look at the pluralism of this wonderful team, now close to the almighty All Blacks as the second best in the world. It features three Ulsterman: captain and County Armagh farmer Rory Best; the rampaging Belfast beanpole Iain Henderson; and the record-breaking young try-scorer Jacob Stockdale, son of an evangelical Protestant prison chaplain. It also has two contrasting imported stars: C.J.Stander, a strong candidate to be the world’s finest Number 8, who is a white South African, and Bundee Aki, the Connacht centre who is the son of a poor Samoan family from South Auckland in New Zealand. Add in 10 ‘ordinary’ Irishmen from Leinster and Munster, and can anyone think of a better symbol of the open, pluralist, multi-cultural and successful country that 21st century Ireland has become than this team?
But here comes the sad bit. Can anyone think of any other institution, event or symbol around which all Irish people – nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, men and women, native and foreign born, black and white – can unite? As somebody who has spent a lot of time working to bring Irish people, north and south, together through practical cross-border cooperation, I can’t (apart, maybe, from St Patrick’s Day itself). Indeed one of my great disappointments is that in the 14 years I worked as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh – during what some would see as a post-1998, EU-funded ‘golden age’ of peace and cooperation – I saw very few new all-island organisations and structures emerging. We in the Centre were instrumental, with others, in bringing together those involved in training teachers, running universities and spatial planning into new all-Ireland networks. But I’m hard pushed to think of any other examples from that largely hopeful and fruitful period – now, I fear, ending with the collapse of the Stormont institutions.
There are others, of course, left over from pre-partition years. Groups as different as accountants, traditional musicians and lifeboat crews have stayed together through the bleak 20th century, practising their arts and crafts and professions as if the border didn’t exist. Smaller sports like cricket and hockey and boxing have done the same. But they are relatively few and far between. So let’s celebrate our marvellous rugby team and congratulate the Irish Rugby Football Union for its determination to uphold sport’s ability to transcend the tragic barriers of our history. Let’s not forget that while the IRA were blowing up international rugby players on the road to Belfast (prematurely ending the international career of one potentially world-class player, Nigel Carr), the IRFU, with the assistance of an Garda Siochana, were making sure that at least one RUC man was protected at the height of the ‘troubles’ to come south to represent his country.
My vision of Ireland – as a pluralist, consensual and world-beating combination – is closer to the IRFU’s than Sinn Fein’s. If that makes me irredeemably Dublin middle class, so be it. When I put the joy people have experienced this year – and for several years – because of the exploits of our rugby team, beside the murder and misery inflicted on Irish people for 30 years by the Provisional IRA, I am unapologetic.
PS Talking of Sinn Fein, do I detect a cosying up by that most middle class and non-republican of political parties, Fine Gael, to the party of the Provisionals? I have noted in previous blogs the surprisingly ‘green’ recent declarations of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Fine Gael and Sinn Fein agreed on the use of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to take over Stormont’s powers if there was no agreement between the Northern parties on a return of power-sharing. Then this week I was erroneously copied into an email from the Taoiseach’s adviser on the North, former senator Jim D’Arcy, in which he commiserated with Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney on having to suspend Senator Máire Devine for re-tweeting an ugly remark about Brian Stack, the Irish prison officer murdered by the IRA. D’Arcy emailed: “Tough day for you, Declan. You did well! Sorry for your girl…A nice person!”