NEXT weekend three Irish teams play three English teams in the European Champions’ Cup. Ulster travel to London to play Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop, Leinster go to Sandy Park to play the Exeter Chiefs and Munster will again welcome Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park.
It can be said with certainty that nothing more than standard-issue terrace banter will pass between the six tribes’ fans. If that boundary is passed it will have more to do with the TV-orientated 7.45 kick-off in Limerick — far too much pub time — than animosity. That Irish players give or have given sterling service to those English clubs underpins the strengthening congeniality of these relationships.
Anyone who imagines these happy, at-ease exchanges are not a dividend of the peace that utterly changed how the nationalities on these islands interact needs a few history lessons but one will suffice. In 1973, long enough ago but not that long ago, England braved IRA death threats and came to play in Ireland. Scotland and Wales had been frightened off a year earlier. Tánasite Simon Coveney was then not yet a year old. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would not be born for six years. Their appreciation, and their contemporaries’ appreciation, of these events, can only be academic — but they, unlike some of the Brextremists so confrontational in the lead up to this week’s divorce hearing, have at least tried to understand what horrors might return should a border be reimposed.
And what horrors they were. In the year between the Welsh and Scottish refusal to travel and England’s 1973 visit, the Troubles reached a pitch incomprehensible today. The first anniversary of the Parachute regiment’s murder of 14 civil rights marchers in Derry had just passed. In total, 18 people died in the first four weeks of 1973. Seven of those died in the fortnight before the January 27 match. In the days just before the Five Nations’ game three RUC men were killed; a UDR soldier was abducted and shot dead; a Catholic was killed by the British army; a civilian was blown up in a car bomb in Sackville Place, Dublin, and a magistrate died three months after being shot on the Falls Road. In Dublin, the British embassy lay in ruins — it had been razed a year earlier.
If those conditions prevailed today, next weekend’s meetings would not happen. It would be impossible to imagine Leicester and their supporters travelling to Munster with any sense of comfort or security. Relationships like these evolved once the chains of terrorism fell away. Many sports have developed links unimaginable a few decades ago. Would Cheltenham be England’s greatest Irish festival if the bombs were still going off? Business and cultural relationships are on a new, civilised and mutually-beneficial footing too.
As we reach what may be a defining moment it must be hoped that the blowhard ignorance, especially the Trojan Horse guff about Irish unity, of so many of those driving Brexit is not echoed by their political leaders. They will have at least inherited the awful lessons of history. One of those is the tragedy of the last Irish politician to agree to a hard Brexit — Michael Collins. His fate hardly offers itself to his successors as a viable option. A time to be icy cool and oh so firm.