“Ulster Rugby – Are you unionism in disguise?”

It annoyed me years ago when I walked into Elvery’s on Dawson Street to find they stocked plenty Leinster and Munster tops but no Ulster ones. Then again, you only stock what there’s a demand for, and for years Ulster was the poor relation in Irish rugby. [Image from BigStock]

So much so that as rugby has become genuinely and broadly popular in Northern Ireland, many Northern Irish nationalists have taken to supporting provincial winners from other parts of the island. Jude Collins, as so often, says out loud what other nationalists fear to:

Funny old thing, loyalty. The commentator on Sky said all of Ulster would be behind the team but maybe not. Two men from Ulster – one Donegal, the other Antrim – who’re living in London were on their way to Twickenham on Saturday when they encountered a father-and-son duo from Bangor, Co Down.

“So who will you be cheering for?” the father kind of demanded. The Antrim/Donegal chaps said they’d be happy enough to see Ulster win, providing it wasn’t accompanied by six- county chants or flags. The Bangor father turned to the son and nodded. “What did I say? You can never tell who they’ll support”.

And he continues with a confession that somewhat underwrites the Bangor man’s suspicions:

OK, cards on the table. I was born in Ulster, have lived most of my life in Ulster, yet on Saturday I wasn’t supporting Ulster. There, I’ve said it. In fact I was rooting hard for the Leinster team. Why? Not sure, actually. Maybe something to do with how the word ‘Ulster’ has been used in this state.

When Northern Ireland was hacked out of nine-county Ulster, the new state was at some pains to declare itself ‘Ulster’. The obvious intention was to make ‘Ulster’ synonymous with ‘Northern Ireland’, and no opportunity was lost. BBC Radio Ulster; the University of Ulster; the Royal Ulster Constabulary; the Ulster Farmers’ Union; the Ulster-American Folk Park; Ulster-Scots…

The list goes on. In every case the title refers to the six counties of Northern Ireland. That can get confusing if, like me, you were born in one of the three erased counties.

Now, in a dazzling back-flip, northern nationalists are being exhorted to support the Ulster team because, blimey, this time it really does mean Ulster, all nine counties.

Except that there is no back flip here. Ulster rugby (in its widest sense) has never been anything other than an integral part of 32 county organisation.

Throughout its long history, there’ve been few defections in loyalty to John Bull’s other island amongst its rugby playing fraternity.

Jude’s conclusion begs the question of just whom this crisis of confidence actually belongs to:

I’ll get out the Ulster scarf when a small, insistent voice inside stops chanting “Ulster – Are you unionism in disguise?”

From previous discussions on Slugger and elsewhere, it is clear that that “small insistent voice” haunts more than Jude. Partition in soccer has led many northern Nationalists to transfer wholesale their allegiance to an organisation that identifies directly with the 26 county Republic.

No such dilemma exists in Rugby. In ‘Ulster Rugby’ most politics is personal rather than organisational. Ironically, those who retain Ulster’s connection with the rest of the island – by metaphorically dying for the green shirt – also largely self identify as Protestant and British.

There’s more than a passing resemblance to Mailer’s ‘psychic outlaw’ in Jude’s inner voice. Then again as a Man City fan who has only the thinnest of relations with that great English city, who am I to talk?

Yet if the ambition “to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter” means anything to modern Republicans these days, it seems odd to continue withholding legitimacy from one of few organisations that has walked that talk, regardless of political times we find ourselves.

Or perhaps it is that latter point that is itself the problem?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty