Support for England in World Cup a step too far

Opinion: President’s pledge is beyond the call of duty


Can we all agree that President Michael D Higgins played a blinder this week? Listening to his eloquent speech in Westminster, it was hard to avoid a shudder at the memory of how close we came to electing that bloke from Celebrity Come Dine With Me (Am I remembering this correctly?).

Indeed, in his travels throughout the United Kingdom, only one significant bum note was sounded. Such is the harmonious atmosphere that he might have been forgiven had he promised to allow Prince Andrew’s face on the €5 note. Turn Cobh back into Queenstown? Why not? We’re all pals now.

But, at a speech in the Guildhall, Higgins strained the limits of good neighbourliness to breaking point and beyond. “As a follower of the beautiful game, I look ahead two months to Brazil and say that if Ireland cannot be at the World Cup finals, then I will raise a glass to England to go all the way,” he said.

Out there on the social networks, the atmosphere was akin to that of a polite dinner party at which a hitherto civilised guest had just proposed the slaughtering of all newborn girls. Forks were halted halfway from plate to mouth as metaphorical diners attempted to process what they had just heard. “Did he just . . . He didn’t say . . . We really have to get going. The babysitter will be waiting.”

This really was too much. Higgins has, in this instance, moved beyond an attempt to heal ancient rivalries and has set about a subversion of the honoured principles that define relations between neighbouring countries of contrasting size and influence.

Traditional antipathy
The traditional Irish antipathy towards English sporting teams has nothing much to do with Cromwell, the Great Famine or the Black and Tans. The Scottish are, if anything, even more inclined to support any team playing England. Just remember the trouble that beset Andy Murray when he wished England ill in a recent football tournament.

More telling still is the anyone-but-England attitude of the typical Protestant rugby supporter in Northern Ireland. The notion, often expressed by those who’ve never met such a person, that unionists “want to be English” would be greeted with howls of derision on Sandy Row. One thing that unites fervent republicans and rabid loyalists is an inherent distrust of toffee-nosed, pin-striped, cucumber- sandwich-scoffing English snoots (which is what they’re like, apparently).

In my experience, the decent people of England find this all rather hurtful. Most will support Scotland or Ireland when those teams are playing in the World Cup finals. The news that the Irish and the Scottish refuse to reciprocate generates bafflement. It’s worse than that, of course. The average Celtic football fan will support any team – even Germany – that finds itself drawn against the English. The Scottish have gone so far as to convince themselves that the nations on either side of Hadrian’s Wall mutually regard each other as the “old enemy”. This is news to most English folk.

There are understandable causes for this. Living in an archipelago dominated by English-based (indeed, London-based) media, one sometimes gets the impression that the largest component nation still sees itself as a planet around which lesser satellites rotate.

Emphasising difference
The fact that a depressing number of foreigners still do not understand that Ireland is a separate, sovereign nation also drives this desire to emphasise difference through hostility. Nobody wants support to be mistaken for subservience.

The anyone-but-my-neighbour syndrome is common everywhere. Few Everton supporters cheer for Liverpool when (as now) that team gets a sniff at glory. The condition defined by Sigmund Freud as “the narcissism of small differences” spurs sporting rivalries in the same way that it triggers more serious factional violence. Combine that with a stubborn desire to get one over a bossier rival – think of the “anyone but Man U” movement – and you are saddled with a formidable obstacle to sporting magnanimity.

Higgins will have some trouble getting the nation to follow him on this one.

This is a faintly absurd state of affairs. We have manoeuvred ourselves into a situation where Martin McGuinness can have supper with the queen and the Police Service of Northern Ireland can march in New York’s St Patrick’s Day parade. Border points have largely vanished. Tourism bodies flog Killarney and Bally- castle in the same brochures.

Yet the anyone-but-England philosophy persists. Nobody in Ireland should feel pressure to support Roy Hodgson’s team. But, honouring the spirit of compromise, could we desist from cheering any rival that finds itself squaring up to the three lions? Let’s play nice.

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