Rugby in Casement Park, Belfast, 2026.

Ireland 2023:

Ireland are ranked as the best men’s rugby team in the world and 2023 is a men’s Rugby World Cup year.

And in a little over a month Ireland will be heading off to try and win the fecking thing – something that would have been but a poor joke even a few years ago.

Irish rugby is perhaps  the best example of successful All-Irelandery (sporting or otherwise) that there is in terms of embracing both political traditions on the island and the Irish team is well represented by players from the two political jurisdictions and political traditions. It is 25 years since the good people of Ireland(32 of 32) voted in the GFA to accept and respect these  2 two political jurisdictions – and whilst I would very much prefer if there were just the one – it will stay that way until such time as the same good people have changed their minds.

And yet…

When the teams lined up on Saturday (5th August) for the World Cup warm up game with Italy and we listened to the three anthems (we get a second one to suggest the inclusivity of the team) it was impossible (for me at least) not to notice that there were only 6 Irish players (in the squad) not singing the first Irish National anthem – and that all six played for Ulster (9 of 9).

Now I don’t know how wise or indeed safe it is for the Ulster Rugby players to sing the Soldier’s song but I’m guessing not very on the first count and I’d prefer not to speculate on the second, but I can’t imagine it would be either wise or safe for any Ireland (26 of 32) players to do the same if the positions were reversed.

As I understand it, the main  purpose of National anthems before sporting contests is to bring the team and supporters together behind the common cause – but we, nevertheless, have decided to sing a song that does precisely the opposite.

There is obviously a fairly sizeable principle at stake here – if we wouldn’t fancy it ourselves – we should not expect others to fancy it. But if we decide, for whatever (self-serving) reason that we’d prefer to ignore this principle on this occasion, then perhaps we should consider the following scenario.

Belfast 2026.

It’s West Belfast to be more precise.  The controversial, over budget, delayed but nevertheless very impressive Casement Park is hosting the first Rugby International in Belfast for decades(2007). Irish Rugby is still on a high having reached the final of the World Cup in 2023 and being installed as favourites for the competition in 2027.

Everyone, including even the French, agree that we would have won the World Cup had it not been for Jonny Sexton’s red card (received for pushing over the referee) and which had led to the last minute successfully converted penalty by France.

But there is trouble brewing in the Irish camp.

Charles, the British King, will be in attendance at Casement Park and naturally will be supporting part of his Kingdom (Ulster 6 of 9) as they take on the proposed new entrant to the 6 Nations, Georgia, who are expected to replace Italy in 2027 – following an Italian corruption scandal.

The confusing IRFU policy of playing the Irish (26 of 32) National anthem when Michael D, the Irish President, is about the place and/or when playing on partitioned southern Irish soil is back under the spotlight again. The previous Irish rugby  international played in 2007 having been mired in controversy but this time the howls of protest are louder from Unionists, who are demanding the playing of God Save the King,  due to the presence of the British Sovereign.

Some Tory MPs and even a few MPs of the governing British Labour Party (which is now dependent on DUP votes) are calling for proper respect to be shown to the King and the IRFU now finds itself in a terrible muddle – largely of its own making. When Sir William Blackledge Beaumont, CBE, President of the International Rugby Board, calls for compromise and a crop  of current senior Irish rugby Internationals threaten to wear green armbands during the game if the British National anthem is played – the IRFU moves from muddle to full blown crisis.

To make matters even worse,  Michael D, the Irish President, enters the fray by revealing he had received an invite to Casement, but has now discovered some undisclosed important business to attend to in Limerick.

Years of excellent inclusivity work by the IRFU is now unravelling…

For those of us who fully appreciate this inclusivity work and see Rugby example as an (almost) excellent template for All Island non political co-operation an appalling vista is now opening up.


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