The story of the anthems offers a sharp insight into how a United Ireland has been imagined by too many of those who profess to desire it as something that is united only in geography but not in much else, writes Paul Rouse.

The desire of tribal politicians to use sport to advance their own particular brand of identity politics is not new.

But, time and again, it reveals the contradictions that almost always lie at the heart of their opportunism.

Last weekend, the Cliftonville team protested against the playing of ‘God Save The Queen’ before their IFA Cup final against Coleraine at Belfast’s Windsor Park.

It was a respectful protest — they simply bowed their heads as the brass band played on.

It was a powerful statement of rejection.

The protest came after Cliftonville’s request that ‘God Save The Queen’ should not be played before the final was rejected by the board of the Irish Football Association (IFA).

In a statement announcing their decision, the IFA said: “The members expressed sympathy for Cliftonville’s position but decided the current board policy, agreed in August 2013, should stand.”

That policy was put in place following a previous decision by the Board of the IFA not to play ‘God Save The Queen’ at the 2013 IFA Cup final, the last occasion on which Cliftonville competed.

Back then, the IFA had expressed a wish to foster a “politically neutral environment”.

In the aftermath of that changed approach (for which no clear or coherent explanation has been offered) Cliftonville FC were entitled to be disappointed, at the least, and were entitled to protest as they did.

The issue lies, however, with the politicking of Sinn Féin.

In the run-up to the match, Sinn Féin MLA Carál Ní Chuilín said: “The decision by the IFA to play the British national anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’, at Windsor Park this Saturday before the Irish Cup final, is yet another example of that organisation making Windsor Park a cold house for Irish nationalists. It looks like the IFA have made the decision that a politically neutral environment at Windsor Park is not for them. What does this say for the IFA’s attitude towards Irish nationalists living in this part of Ireland?”

If we take Ní Chuilín’s logic and extend it to rugby, the question begs itself as to how Sinn Féin views the playing of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ before Irish international rugby matches?

Presumably, it acknowledges the playing of the Irish national anthem means that the Aviva Stadium is not ‘a politically neutral environment’ on international match days.

That being the case, does Sinn Féin think it just and proper that those members of the Irish rugby team who are from a Unionist background should have to stand for ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’?

And what would be the Sinn Féin reaction if such players were to bow their heads in protest during the playing of that anthem?

No amount of dancing on the head of a pin can disguise the double-standards set down.

And this is no new dilemma for Sinn Féin’s elected representatives.

Indeed, the current Lord Mayor of Dublin, Mícheál Mac Donncha, revealed his own views on such issues during the last Rugby World Cup in 2015.

In the aftermath of Ireland’s defeat of Canada in that competition, Mac Donncha — who ran unsuccessfully in the Dublin Bay North constituency in the last general election — lamented the fact that ‘Ireland’s Call’ rather than ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ was played before the match.

He said that this was a choice that was nothing to do with being politically correct, rather:

It is the inferiority complex and anti-national attitude of the West Brits who still run Irish rugby.

Mac Donncha, made the comments on Facebook and when asked to clarify his views, he replied: “I think I reflect the attitude of a lot of people who regard the fact there is no playing of the national anthem as being an anti-national attitude.”

As to whether he was referring to the Irish Rugby Football Union as ‘West Brits’, Mac Donncha was reported in as saying: “If the cap fits, wear it.”

It is easy to see how these sentiments might prove appealing to those who hate ‘Ireland’s Call’ and who have a deep attachment to ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’.

Mícheál Mac Donncha
Mícheál Mac Donncha

And that’s fine, if you wish to view things in that light, and only in that light.

But as a distillation of the prejudices of a particular mindset, they are also most illuminating.

Most of all, they demonstrate a political worldview that is unencumbered by any meaningful understanding of the complexities of history, or of the sporting choices that people have made in Ireland across the last 150 years.

That worldview is ordinarily one in which any real attempt to grapple with nuance or ambiguity must be abandoned — because any such attempt, notably one that might lead to some form of respectful reconciliation, would inevitably mean deep compromise.

And it’s much easier to bang tribal drums and recite tribal chants and bathe in the warm and familiar water of populist rhetoric than it is to engage with the cultural preferences and identity choices of those with whom one disagrees.

It will be interesting to watch Mac Donncha if Leinster win the European Champions Cup at the weekend. Presumably there will be a civic reception, in line with the ones accorded to Dublin’s men’s and women’s All-Ireland winning teams last autumn. Maybe Mac Donncha might begin a speech by apologising for his previous insults? That would be a decent, commendable development.

The struggles of singing an anthem from the same hymn sheet

But, either way, the difficulties faced by certain sporting organisations in respect of flags and anthems will endure. The challenges presented by the partition of Ireland have been particularly acute when violence was at its worst, but even in times of peace it has required skilled adjustment and the ability to swallow hard.

This has not always been possible. And the fact that sporting events are invariably the site for the display of the symbols of national identity — notably flags and anthems and invited dignitaries playing ceremonial roles — creates pressures in a divided society.

There is a bottom line, however: To demand of others that they should forgo their own symbols is only reasonable if you are willing to forgo your own.

And there is currently no evidence that such a willingness exists.

More than that, the story of the anthems offers a sharp insight into how a United Ireland has been imagined by too many of those who profess to desire it as something that is united only in geography but not in much else.


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