The most remarkable aspect of another thrilling and historic Irish rugby success yesterday was not that an island of seven million people has produced the best team in the world, but that the team represents a country which doesn’t exist.
The Irish rugby team is not a national team in that it does not represent either the Republic or Northern Ireland, but both — even if many people would wish the constitutional reality of the island reflected the united reality of their sporting heroes.
Sporting success can be nurtured and drilled, but passionately uniting so many people across two jurisdictions who have opposing constitutional beliefs is far harder.
And, yet, yesterday Northern unionists were in the stands at the Aviva Stadium or shouting at their televisions alongside southern nationalists, republicans, constitutional agnostics and almost every shade of political opinion on the island.
The team embodies modern Ireland: pluralist, tolerant, confident, and successful. It is an obvious inspiration to nationalists. What if everything could be like this?
The ethos of the team has always been moderate inclusiveness, but that has represented just one segment of wider society
Sinn Féin, which once saw rugby as posh boys playing a suspiciously Protestant foreign game with a funny ball, has come to see how a united rugby team could help inspire a united nation.
In 1997, party newspaper An Phoblacht dismissed the British & Irish Lions as “a team whose heritage smacks of the worst aspects of British imperialism” but 20 years later Gerry Adams was tweeting “C’mon the Lions”; Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald now revel in Six Nations victories.
Rugby manages to avoid symbolic disputes in large part because its core support is the middle class, which eschew such rows. Those in the stands self-select, leaving many others out. But a country can’t do that. It has to unite almost everyone to be stable.
Eight years ago, writer Daniel Collins, on the website Slugger O’Toole, said that in rugby “we nationalists get the tricolour and Amhrán na bhFiann… whilst unionists get a hollow token gesture. There is a complacent presumption in the south that ‘that’s them sorted’ and we nationalists pat ourselves on the back for being so ‘generous’ and ‘willing to compromise’, except it’s not really a compromise at all, is it”.
He asked whether southerners or nationalists would “ever expect the southern players to stand through the discomfort of observing God Save The Queen as an anthem of the Irish team in the same way players from a Northern unionist background are expected to stand for Amhrán na bhFiann”.
Middle-class unionists have largely been too polite to complain about this, although there was a brief backlash at the IRFU’s contorted designation of Ravenhill as an “away” stadium in 2007 so it could avoid Northern Ireland’s national anthem being played.
Most unionists who support the team, among them members of the Orange Order, see the bigger picture. They realise this is a politically messy compromise and that Northern Ireland is small in relation to the rest of the island. Few of them want rows which distract the team, although, as in so many areas, Brexit strained this.
Four years ago, the unionist columnist Owen Polley wrote in the Belfast News Letter: “Like many unionists with an interest in sport, I’ve always cheered on the Ireland rugby team without reservation. Thanks to the current political mood on the island, though, I won’t be following this year’s Six Nations with much enthusiasm. Truth be told, I’ve never felt less like I share a common identity with people from southern Ireland.”
Other unionists have never supported the Ireland team, seeing it as dominated by a country with which they feel no affinity. Yet the roots of unionism and Irishness are long entwined. The success of the union lay in how it preserved national identities in certain areas — at the time, more significant in regiments than sport — while overlaying that with a shared identity.
Thus, while it would baffle an American visitor to see convinced Ulster unionists cheering on an Irish team against England, they see it as no more contradictory than Scottish unionists roaring on Scotland against England. It doesn’t mean they’re not firmly pro-union.
Even the late Ian Paisley spoke with pride at the “Ulster contribution that we’re putting into what is really an all-Ireland situation”. No one would have suggested he was anything other than staunchly unionist.
A decade ago, the then Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt told his party conference: “I am British, but I do not want to miss out on the Irishness within me, the sort of Irishness which means I think very un-Christian thoughts about the England rugby team when they are in Dublin.”
He shared something in that regard with the author of an article in An Phoblacht who two decades ago observed that even for those uninterested in rugby: “Here we have an Irish team going over to London to bate lumps out of the English. Well if that ain’t worth supporting, I don’t know what is.”
If unity in rugby equated to constitutional unity, Ireland would never have been divided. The ethos of the team has always been moderate inclusiveness, but that has represented just one segment of wider society.
The sociologist John Sugden observed in 1995 that rugby is “mainly a middle-class sport played in middle-class grammar schools and that, in general, the middle-classes in Northern Ireland have a tendency to feel less threatened by maintaining at least some cross-border contacts”.
In 1996, the legendary Irish captain Jack Kyle sent a 1,200-word letter to Irish newspapers in which he excoriated Ian Paisley and hoped that he “would eventually disappear and his ideas with him”.
Other Northern Protestant Irish rugby players hoped likewise, but the reality was that Paisley represented what many unionists thought. A year after the Good Friday Agreement, he polled almost 200,000 votes.
In recent years rugby has reached beyond its middle-class roots, and in doing so influences more of society. Uniting most of the island in beating the English at manoeuvring a ball around a field and then shaking hands with them afterwards is progress — all the more so when Ireland’s coach is English.
We should relish this for what it is rather than pretending that politics can be as simple as sport.