Wednesday 21 August 2019

'I'd see the Republic of Ireland competing in the Commonwealth Games, otherwise stop talking about a United Ireland'

Ireland’s Trevor Ringland in action against England during the 1982 Five Nations championship at Twickenham. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Ireland’s Trevor Ringland in action against England during the 1982 Five Nations championship at Twickenham. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

It's quite an achievement to win two Five Nations titles with Ireland and tour New Zealand with the Lions and not be defined by rugby - but if you know Trevor Ringland, you'll find it easy to believe.

Belfast-born Ringland first came into the public eye during the Irish team's heady days in the 1980s, but only a rugby anorak would remember him purely as a double Triple Crown-winning wing.

While his exploits on the rugby field gave Irish people from both sides of the border immense joy, the work he has done subsequently in the Northern Irish community to bring Catholics and Protestants together - primarily through sport - will leave a legacy with a far greater societal impact than the 1982 and '85 Five Nations triumphs.

Born in 1959, Ringland is old enough to remember life in west Belfast before The Troubles - "perfectly normal".

Despite the best efforts of his police officer father, who served in the RUC for 42 years, Ringland's childhood changed with the start of the conflict.

"My parents were good in trying to make sure it [The Troubles] had as little impact as possible on us but we were aware that there was a sub-machine gun under their bed," Ringland says.

"That's at nine years old. From then on until the end of the Troubles, whenever my father got in a car, he had to check underneath it to make sure it wasn't booby-trapped."

Even then, Ringland had a sense of perspective about what was going on around him. Sure, he saw himself as British, but he was Irish too.

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Ringland's anger was directed at those in the extremes, who either committed or incited violence, often while holding hypocritical religious views. He was forced to grow up fast while his father risked his life every day.

"The Christian message is definitely not 'kill your neighbour'," Ringland says.

"One night my father was being shot at by the IRA in west Belfast. At the same time my mother got a phonecall saying that Loyalist paramilitaries were burning policemen out of their homes in my hometown.

"The police became a third community and threats came in different ways at different times. You were a counsellor for your father in certain ways. He tried to provide a sense of normalcy for us, and we tried to provide it for him."

Sport was the outlet that showed Ringland how things could work between Irish people from different backgrounds.

He was introduced to rugby at Larne Grammar School, before excelling at the sport at Queen's University, where he studied law and played alongside future Ireland internationals Nigel Carr, Philip Matthews, David Irwin, Philip Rainey and Kenny Hooks.

"Sport to me showed what was possible," he says. "In school, we'd have weekend rugby trips and have great fun in the Dublin area. It was a different Irishness to the one the IRA was promoting and I'd like to think that the Britishness that I had was different to what the Loyalists were promoting."

Playing on an All-Ireland rugby team held great significance for Ringland.

"Lansdowne Road was not a foreboding place, it felt like a place that wanted you there," he says.

"At least twice I united the people of Ireland, when I scored a try against England at Twickenhan in 1986 - I have it on good authority that both wings of the Maze Prison cheered - and when I let Chris Oti score three tries against me at Twickenham two years later, and everyone said, 'get rid of him, he's useless'."

That tough day in London marked the end of his illustrious rugby career but it served as the beginning of another phase of his life.

Ringland decided to get involved in the community - "When you live in this society and you have a stake in it, you always want it to be doing better" - and sport would be the way to do it.

One initiative he got involved in was with Peace Players International, which uses basketball to bring together children from divided communities.

Along with basketball player David Cullen, Ringland sought to have children from Wheatfield and Holy Cross primary schools in Ardoyne, Belfast, play together.

This was not a popular proposal in the segregated area - some parents called in lawyers to stop it - but eventually through Ringland and Cullen's perseverance, they were able to bring the children together.

Ringland doesn't seek to promote one cause over another - instead, he wishes Northern Ireland to be as inclusive as possible. He commends the IFA for stamping out sectarianism at Windsor Park and heralds the inclusive attitude of recently deceased Ulster GAA secretary Danny Murphy.

"Danny used to say that when Down play, they represent all of Down," Ringland says.

"It doesn't matter whether everyone supports them or not, that's not the point. He wanted people to understand that they wanted to represent all the people of Down.

"To me that should be called The Murphy Principle and it should govern not only sport, but many other relationships. You should look to include everyone in your area of influence."

Ringland has followed the recent debate about the role of the flag and the anthem in the GAA with interest.

"I have always been impressed by the sense of community in the GAA," Ringland says.

"Sometimes, though, it's important that that sense of community is communicated successfully to people from different backgrounds."

Ringland is conscious of all the progress that has been made in the community in Northern Ireland, but he thinks that sporting organisations could be doing more to bring different communities together.

"I would see the Republic of Ireland competing in the Commonwealth Games," Ringland says.

"If that is unlikely, then people should stop talking about a United Ireland. It would have no consequence to it other than being part of a group of nations from around the world. If anyone is seriously talking about a United Ireland, if you want to include one million people in the concept of an Irish identity, then that would seem to me to be a no-brainer."

And although Ringland praises rugby for the steps they have taken to reach out to people on both sides of the border, he feels there is one crucial step missing.

"If you have All-Ireland sports, you have to have symbols of all parts of the island so why not stick a Northern Ireland flag up at the Aviva Stadium? If you are going to fly the tricolour then fly the Northern Ireland flag as well. Don't make a big issue of it."

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