Monday 18 December 2017

Where sport has united our island

Belfast boys: Michael Conlan (left) and Paddy Barnes in their home town after winning bronzes for Ireland in the 2012 Olympics
Belfast boys: Michael Conlan (left) and Paddy Barnes in their home town after winning bronzes for Ireland in the 2012 Olympics
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

As Ireland ponders the idea of a united Ireland, perhaps politicians should look to sport for inspiration.

While our success in international competitions may have been limited by the fact that we have two soccer teams, in some of the sports where we have enjoyed success there are unified teams.

These include rugby, boxing and golf. Nine Irish Olympic medals - two silver and seven bronze - have been won by boxers from Co Antrim. These included bronze medals in 2012 for Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan.

UCD historian Paul Rouse, an authority on the history of Irish sport, said many sports are organised on an all-Ireland basis because they had organisations across the 32 counties before Partition in 1922.

Before the birth of the Irish Free State there was a single international soccer team, but this fell apart due to disputes between the Leinster and Ulster associations.

The closest we have come to an All-Ireland team since was in 1973, when a Shamrock Rovers selection played against Brazil at Lansdowne Road, and lost 4-3.

The team included some of the leading players of the era from North and South. Among the Northerners were Derek Dougan, Pat Jennings and Martin O'Neill. The players from the Republic included John Giles, Paddy Mulligan and Don Givens.

The proceeds of the match went to charities, but the exercise has not been repeated and was not given official sanction by the soccer authorities on either side of the Border.

The FAI chief executive John Delaney has supported the idea of an all-Ireland team, but he suggested that it would only happen if there is political unity.

Irish rugby authorities have maintained the sport's all-island structure by carefully steering a diplomatic path, and taking into account the concerns of Northern Protestant players and fans over symbols.

Flags and anthems have been adjusted over the decades to suit the times. At different points in its history, 'Amhrán na bhFiann', 'God Save the King' (at matches in Belfast), and 'Ireland's Call' have been sung at matches, and at the first ever rugby World Cup in 1987, the anthem was the 'Rose of Tralee'.

A nation of bland anthems, see Page 9


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