Proxy Wars: Sport and Nationalism in Northern Ireland

By: Chelsea Fuchs

May 7, 2018

"The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people…and the individual [a] symbol of his nation himself."
—Eric Hobsbawm

As the streets of Belfast turned green on the morning of March 17, famously known as St. Patrick’s Day, I stood anxiously waiting for the clock to strike 2:45 p.m., the moment Ireland Rugby was to face reigning champions England at Twickenham, English home ground, in the finale of the 2018 Six Nations Championship. Despite my limited history with rugby, I found myself joining the majority of the day’s partygoers in supporting the Irish team against England. As I stood in a pub in Northern Ireland, a province of the United Kingdom of Great Britain (as is England), I was nonetheless caught up in a wave of devotion to a team representing a territory south of the border. And boy, was it worth it. On St. Patrick’s Day 2018, Ireland Rugby took down reigning champions England to clinch the championship title and earn the Triple Crown, and Northern Ireland celebrated as if they were one of their own. 

Two points in particular stand out. Belfast, a historically unionist city, showed massive support for the Republic of Ireland’s rugby team. Rugby itself is often referred to as a British sport and thus shunned by many nationalists. Nevertheless, I was surrounded by self-proclaimed unionists and nationalists, all of whom were ferociously throwing their support behind Ireland’s rugby team. 

This is one instance of sports acting as a powerful unifying force. Rugby transcended social and political divisions in Northern Ireland to bring historically-opposed groups together in shared support for one team. Consider the South African Sprinboks, once a symbol of colored division and white supremacy, which came to represent the unity and hope of a divided nation in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. In the moment Nelson Mandela strode out onto the pitch in a Springboks jersey and shook hands with captain Francois Pienaar, a divided nation rallied behind its team, which went on to clinch a historic win on home ground. 

However, sports can also act as a polarising tool, incubating separation based on existing prejudices. As unified as the population might have appeared on St. Patrick’s Day, Northern Ireland continues to remain a deeply divided society, but one that is now dominated by cultural tensions expressed through sports. Sports are dramatic and emotive. The robust new media reporting of matches has made it a powerful proxy for divisions in Northern Ireland today, where identities from the time of the Troubles are now expressed through sporting allegiances. For example, majority of nationalists will support anyone but England at international competitions, especially when the Irish isle has no representative in the event. Moreover, the Gaelic Athletic Association remains a largely Catholic-nationalist organization, and Protestants rarely participate in Gaelic football, choosing the more ‘English’ football (soccer) over it. That being said, I spoke to several members of the Queen’s University football team who mentioned the growing religious diversity within the team. While discussing religion, the boys would often poke fun at each other for their religious beliefs, or ‘banter,’ but there was never an atmosphere of tension or hatred. They did however, often refer to a footballer from Northern Ireland named Neil Lennon, who has been the victim of assaults and threats against his life for ‘betraying’ the Protestant community by playing for the Catholic Celtic football team in Glasgow. While things might appear harmonious at the university, sports are clearly still used as a pretext for prejudices to this day. 

Having said all that, is the support for Ireland during the St. Patrick’s Day match a sign of unity, or an indication of greater divides in terms of strengthening nationalist sentiment? Personally, I believe it might be prudent not to read too much into this. Unionist support for Ireland rugby could simply be due to their Northern Irish captain Rory Best. Furthermore, while it might appear to be a sign of progress that Best himself is not shunned for captaining the Irish team, support for rugby as a sport is differentiated along socioeconomic lines, where wealthier and more cosmopolitan people tend to watch the sport. This largely explains why prejudices amongst rugby fans in Belfast are far less noticeable. Ultimately, the cultural war persists and exclusivity in sport outside of cities continues, but generational differences portend positive changes in the future, something we must bear in mind when analyzing social relationships in Northern Ireland.

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Proxy Wars: Sport and Nationalism in Northern Ireland