Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Hockey problem reflects a common misapprehension

I’m not a fan of field hockey and at first glance a post about Olympic eligibility on Slugger O’Toole didn’t greatly raise my hackles, but on closer examination I think the story highlights the manner in which the term Ireland is often wrongly viewed as analogous to the Republic of Ireland and demonstrates that this can have a practical effect in prescribing and limiting people who wish to exercise a plurality of identity.

The crux of the story is that a change in the rules prevents Northern Irish hockey players, who have competed for the Ireland hockey team in competitions featuring separate England, Scotland and Wales sides, from representing the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team in the Olympic Games. In previous Olympic tournaments Northern Irish players have played integral roles in medal winning GB & NI teams, but now they are forced to rule themselves out of international tournaments in which Team GB do not compete, if they wish to play for the UK side. Obviously it becomes extremely problematic to play consistently at the required level if players wish to go down this route.

Of course the difficulty is that in the Olympics, UK and Republic of Ireland national teams are fielded across the events, whereas the Ireland hockey team is composed of players representing the whole island, north and south. When Northern Irish players play for Ireland in hockey they are not representing the Republic of Ireland, they are representing their part of the island in a team which represents both parts, despite their different constitutional arrangements. There should be no question that these players are asked to compromise their ability to play for a team which reflects those constitutional arrangements when that is appropriate and when the opportunity presents itself.

Of course this type of misunderstanding is not confined to hockey. The Irish Rugby Football Union fosters just such a disingenuous conflation when it allows anthems and symbols of the Republic of Ireland to be displayed at its representative teams’ matches in Dublin, but does not allow the Northern Ireland / UK equivalents in Belfast. Instead the IRFU released a nonsensical statement when Ireland played Italy at Ravenhill claiming that the match was technically an ‘away’ fixture.

In rugby this conflation is confined to symbols and therefore it carries mere annoyance value to unionists, who feel it most acutely simply as a refusal to accord proper respect. In this case hockey players are being practically prevented from representing their country at the Olympic Games and that frankly, is not good enough.


Aidan said...

I don't think that many people actually think that the Irish rugby team is representing the Irish Republic. In fact almost anybody I have ever spoken about it with is very aware that rugby and hockey are played predominantly by Protestants in the north.
I can see your point about the Irish flag and anthem being played at internationals in Dublin but at least they do not impose that at awat games though 'Ireland's Call' not exactly to my taste.
Personally I would say that they should use a neutral flag which is not attached to a state. Anthems and flags mean little to me anyway.

On the other hand whenever the Lions are playing we continually hear them being called the 'British' Lions or the British Isles though not all Irish people regard themselves as British and many Irish people do not use the term the British Isles. I know the official name is a mouthful but my point is that everybody can find things to be upset by.
Personally I think that it is preferable from a sporting point of view that have all-island teams in every sport. We should agree a neutral meaningless flag and avoid singing anthems, how about an instrumental?
As long you have Scotland and Wales fielding their own teams the link between sporting entities and having a state is broken so all-island teams should not upset anybody.
I hope that those hockey players do get to play for the UK in the Olympics whatever happens.

Chekov said...

Don't misunderstand me Aidan, I don't have a problem with the concept of all-Ireland teams, although I do think they should avoid symbols and anthems from either state, or represent both. My preference would be for the former.

You might be right that people actually understand these teams represent both parts of the island (and I think if you look at the make-up of the two teams they're far from composed mainly of northern players), but sometimes the furniture that accompanies them doesn't reflect that reality. That is where these confusions and conflations arise.

Long may northern players continue to play hockey for Ireland, but it should be without prejudice to their ability to play for the Great Britain and NI team when it plays in the Olympics.

Aidan said...

"if you look at the make-up of the two teams they're far from composed mainly of northern players"
I think that the hockey team has had a majority northern players in the past and the rugby team goes in swings and roundabouts. There was a 15 a couple of years back which had no Ulster players but now you have 4 or 5 regularly making the 15.
In the international rules teams against Australia there are always plenty of Ulster players given the fact that Gaelic Football is really strong there. In the international rules (hurling/shinty) against Scotland you would expect no Ulster players given that hurling is weak there.
You shouldn't pick teams trying to get a balance of regions.
For me the attraction of an all-Ireland soccer team is that you could try to get 11 players who are actually from the island or with at least 1 parent. I am totally against the granny rule and both the ROI and NI teams have played all kids of ringers in the past (NI using the British passport rule, ROI using the granny rule).
I remember reading that Bernie Slaven had never even been in Ireland before his first game for the ROI team.

beano said...

"whenever the Lions are playing we continually hear them being called the 'British' Lions or the British Isles"

I haven't heard them called the British Lions since the name was changed (though most of the news I watch is the BBC) and never heard them called the British Isles (though I know that was their original/official name).

Aidan said...

Not that I lose sleep over it but John Inverdale regularly calls the team the British Lions as does Jeremy Guscott. I don't see why they can't just call the team the Lions because it is supposed to be a team that doesn't represent any sovereign nations so why mention nationality. To be honest I would like to see a Six Nations Lions.
I have never heard them being called the British Isles either but I distinctly remember falling off my stool when I saw that on a
scoreboard during the last NZ tour.