How united is Ireland's rugby team?

Last Saturday's 6 Nations clash between England and current champions Ireland was tense, exciting, and, from a English fan's point of view, utterly heartbreaking. A last-gasp Irish win meant that gone was England's chance of a first Grand Slam since the World Cup winning season of 2003 and now France - overwhelming favourites for the title - remain the only unbeaten team in the competition.

Historically Ireland have been one of the Championship's weaker sides; last year's title was the first since 1985 and only the second time that the team has completed an all-conquering Grand Slam in the tournament's history. But relative lack of success - offset to some degree by their current good form in recent years - is not what distinguishes Ireland from every other team that makes up the 6 Nations. What makes Irish rugby so different is that its players are drawn from two entirely independent political institutions, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That almost all the players that have represented the team in recent years have come from the South is in spite of the unified ethos of an all-island side.

But unity, it seems, doesn't quite bring equality. Anyone with a passing interest in Irish affairs will note that the presence of two administrations on the island has not always been without controversy, and there are competing and mutually exclusive movements in both jurisdictions for either the retention of the status quo - with Northern Ireland continuing as a constituent part of the United Kingdom - or the unification of the North with the Republic as one independent nation state. These competing nationalisms - sometimes expressing themselves in arms - have plagued the stability of the island ever since the 26 counties that initially formed the Free State and now make up the Republic seceded from the rest of the UK, of which it had formerly been a part.

So any sports team representing both Irish states needs to respect their respective political and cultural sensitivities, even if they each something of an opposing dynamic. In Ireland's case this is bound to be difficult, but such are the obligations that come with insisting on having a unified team.

Except in practice this doesn't really happen. Anthems are a good case in point; whilst Ireland's Call - representing the whole island - is always played irrespective of location, at games played in Dublin Amhrán na bhFiann - The Soldier's Song - is also performed. The song's chorus is the national anthem of the Irish Republic and is explicitly associated with Irish nationalism, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the third verse warns that"...out yonder waits the Saxon foe". But when the team plays in Belfast the national anthem of the United Kingdom - God Save the Queen - is not played, despite the somewhat bland tune's performance at international sporting events involving Northern Ireland.

Flags are also another source of contention; at Dublin's fixtures the Irish tricolour - national flag of the Republic - is flown, whilst at the equivalent fixtures in the North only a non-political 'rugby' banner is displayed. There isn't a Union Flag or Ulster banner in sight. Such a stance could easily suggest to the casual observer that the team represents only the Republic of Ireland and not that part of the island which continues to be united with the rest of Great Britain, an ironic state of affairs given the sport's English origins and its former proscription by the nationalist Gaelic Athletic Association.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement - passed by referendum in both Irish territories - states that "All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division." It would be to the IRFU's credit if they observed such lofty aspirations in their own sporting jurisdiction; either have the political symbols of both Northern Ireland and the Republic on display at all matches, or don't have them at all. A united team is nothing of the sort when one constituent receives more recognition than the other.


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