There are genuine reasons for concern over Brexit’s impact on Ireland’s bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, writes Paul Rouse.
The spectacle of English politics at the moment mixes high entertainment with low farce. Every current affairs programme on radio and TV seems on the cusp of degenerating into a sort of ‘Talk to Joe’, Liveline-style emotionalism. In the process, the old clichés of pragmatic stoicism, ‘stiff upper lip’, and empirical efficiency are rendered more absurd by the day.
The raw truth in this sorry tale of the implosion of England’s ruling elite is a straightforward one: They don’t know what they’re doing. And more than that, they don’t even seem to know what they want.
What was that old phrase that used to be thrown around about the natives during the dog days of Empire? Does ‘unfit for self-government’ ring any bells?
The problem, of course, is that on this island we will all suffer at least a little from the chaos in London.
And Irish sport will share in this suffering.
Could it be that the Irish bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup will be the first local casualty? This suggestion has been loudly and quickly dismissed by the people who have put together the bid. This dismissal is understandable (what other choice do the bidders have?) and may very well prove to be accurate. But there are genuine reasons for concern.
Earlier this year, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne did his best to close off the issue when it was raised at a press conference: “The one thing that we do have is a commitment from the governments in the Republic of Ireland, the Northern Ireland executive, and indeed Whitehall in the UK to ensure that nothing will stand in the way to make this a seamless competition on both sides of the border.”
The final bids (France and South Africa are also bidding) to stage the competition were lodged before June 1 and the decision will be announced after the World Rugby Council meeting in November.
In the run-up to submitting the bid, Ireland’s 2023 Rugby World Cup Bid Oversight Board stressed that the Irish application to stage the tournament resides outside of all potential Brexit fallout.
Dick Spring, the former tánaiste who is chairing of the Irish bid team, was as adamant as Philip Browne that Brexit would not matter: “I personally do not think it will be an issue because Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the UK are going to have to find a resolution to the issues long in advance of the World Cup. I have to say I have confidence in people’s abilities to sort out any problems. Our relationship with Northern Ireland is too important to allow it to be impeded.”
He concluded: “The all-island aspect is an extremely important aspect of our bid.”
And therein lies the bind.
The central pillar of the bid is its all-island dimension, but nobody has the slightest idea how precisely the border on the island will look in 2023. What emerged from the Good Friday agreement was an Agreed Ireland, campaigned and voted for by the main political parties, productive of shared power in Northern Ireland, and — crucially — one in which the border between north and south was dismantled for much of everyday practical living.
People and goods have been able to flow in every direction and, while divides remain, the border has been softened in ways that have rendered it porous to the point of irrelevance across much of life.
But what now?
There has been a lot of windbagging about how the Irish question will be a priority as the Brexit talks between the EU and Theresa May’s ‘government’ develop. That may prove to be true — but you’d be a fool to believe it inevitable. It’s not normally the way international politics works.
Irish diplomats have done an outstanding job ensuring the special nature of Irish claims are referenced in all significant speeches. But what will those words matter when the heavy lifting starts in earnest?
The priority for May is England and the priority for Europe will be Germany and France — and making sure that the eventual accord is rough enough to make any other country thinking of leaving the EU have sobering second thoughts.
Ireland will have to be dealt with as part of an overall settlement, but to imagine an outcome built around an accommodation of Irish demands is to rely on the kind of optimism usually described as misplaced (or simply mad).
The violence of the past has been muted in the last two decades but to believe it to have disappeared entirely, or permanently, is to ignore history. It may be unlikely that the return of border posts — and the implementation of a ‘hard border, in general — will generate an immediate return to violence. But it would be foolish to deny it is a possibility.
In worrying about the impact of Brexit on Ireland, you do not even need to stray into the realm of the violent forces that have previously manifest themselves to understand the difficulty it poses to staging a Rugby World Cup.
The size of the island and the plan for running the 2023 Rugby World Cup depends on the easy flow of people. It is straightforward to understand how that would work if the competition were to start tomorrow. Six years’ time looks much more complicated.
The basic question stands: What form will the remade border take? In terms of goods, almost 400,000 vans and lorries cross the border each month. Will these now be stopped at customs points? And, if so, how?
The press of people poses still greater challenges. Brexit was, at its core, a response to immigration. So, will there we routine passport checks on every journey between the Republic of Ireland and the UK? How this question is answered gets to the nub of the place of Northern Ireland within the UK. It is hard to see how the Democratic Unionist Party, with its fringe of reactionaries, can accept a sort of special status for Northern Ireland, outside of the UK for border controls. Are such controls on borders not clear manifestations of the sovereignty of every realm?
It is, of course, true that the Rugby World Cup, the World Cup in soccer and various European competitions, have been shared across different countries. The difference was, though, everyone knew the precise nature of the constitutional arrangements and could plan accordingly from the beginning. There is no such comfort here; indeed, the enduring shambles in London suggests any clarity is a long way off.
And then there is power-sharing.
The opposing views of the DUP and Sinn Féin — and their commitment above everything else to the absolute dominance of their own tribe — suggests repeated crises, repeated periods of deadlock in the governance of Northern Ireland. How can you have any confidence in the operation of the Good Friday agreement given that essential fact, set as it is within the context of post-Brexit uncertainties?
It can be argued that none of these things matter to sport. But this is wrong — and it is particularly wrong when a fundamental necessity in staging modern sporting tournaments is state support. The money required to ready Irish infrastructure for 2023 is a case in point.
It should be noted that both France and South Africa have their own challenges. France has its ongoing security difficulties, while South Africa remains politically riven in the post-Mandela era and is mired in economic malaise. Against that, both countries have successfully staged both soccer and rugby World Cups and that is a strong card to have to play.
Perhaps — as Philip Browne and Dick Spring insist — all of the Brexit challenges will melt away. The danger is, however, that the timing from an Irish perspective could not be much worse and that — in a close run bidding war — Brexit will become the excuse not to grant Ireland the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
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