An Irishman's Diary
During a lull in the rugby at Lansdowne Road on Saturday – and there were many lulls – I found myself wondering about the green-coloured Y in the South African flag. It symbolises the country’s different traditions merging on the road to unity, apparently. But that depends which way you’re driving. If you start from the right, the unitary road diverges. So maybe there’s something there for pluralists too.
Officially at least, the rest of the flag’s shapes and colours are a random arrangement. The African National Congress’s green, yellow, and black are all present, as are some of the components of the old apartheid-era tricolour. But only the Y is acknowledged as symbolic. As for the significance of the other colours and shapes, it’s whatever you’re having yourself.
Dull as the game was, I thought there was one highly-entertaining moment, which not only dramatised the flag’s meaning but also challenged our perceptions of the new South Africa. The entertainment came at the expense of Irish No 7, Chris Henry. Who, as you may recall, was waiting under a high ball when two very large opponents, representing different African traditions, converged in his direction like the branches of a green-coloured Y.
The problem was that one of them, winger JP Pietersen, arrived well ahead both of his colleague and of the ball. Whereupon he went through the still-waiting Henry like he was the road to unity. Cue outrage by the home supporters, who howled for blood. Or failing blood, for a card of that colour. But no sooner had the howling started than – this was my sensation, anyway – an uncomfortable thought dawned on everyone simultaneously. Here we all were, in the heart of polite, liberal, middle-class Dublin 4. And we were – gasp! – booing a black man playing rugby for South Africa.
Suddenly, decades of anti-apartheid protests flashed before those of us old enough to remember. We saw Kader Asmal, and the Dunnes Stores strikers, and Bishop Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. Steve Biko was there too. It was a deeply uncomfortable moment.
Then it passed. Realising that, in all the circumstances, it would be immature not to, we carried on booing.
That incident aside, and not for the first time in an Ireland – South Africa international, the game itself failed to reach the standard of entertainment set by the pre-match anthems.
Always an enjoyable concert, the anthems this time had the added novelty of a South African who qualified for Ireland through the three-year residency rule singing Amhrán na bhFiann with great enthusiasm while Irish-born players from north of the Border maintained the usual respectful silence and waited for Ireland’s Call. So, later, in the long intervals between scores or cases of grievous bodily harm, I also got to thinking about what an agreed Irish flag might look like, if there were ever to be such a thing.
As it is, rugby’s latest compromise on the issue involves flying the Tricolour and the flag of (nine-county) Ulster side by side. Which is a fudge, really. After all, many Ulster supporters still prefer the Northern Ireland, or six-county “Ulster”, flag. Thus, I suspect that any North-South committee assigned to the task would have to combine both South African-style ambiguity with the imaginative use of Venn diagrams.
You’ll remember from school that a Venn diagram is a method of representing all possible relations between a collection of sets. And in fact, the existing Irish Tricolour could be seen as a two-set Venn diagram, with Set A comprising the green tradition and Set B the orange.
Of course, the intention of its designers was to evoke what mathematicians call the “union” of the sets. And in this context they also intended the white to represent peace, which is not a mathematical concept. Even so, one could still interpret the flag’s white part as the sets’ “intersection”, containing people who are both green and orange (ie, the Alliance Party).
Using that as a starting point, you could perhaps add third, fourth or subsequent sets, allowing multiple overlaps. Ideally the finished diagram would have separate-coloured sections for the North, the South, the bit that’s further north that the North but is in the South (Donegal), the part of Ulster not considered “Ulster” by unionists, Bandit Country, Dublin 4, the rest of Leinster, the People’s Republic of Cork, the Diaspora, and the odd Kiwi or South African who isn’t necessarily covered by anything else but can play for us under the rules.