Next Sunday night, the Republic of Ireland take on Poland in a Uefa European Championship qualifier in Dublin's Aviva Stadium. It is the perfect moment to celebrate the growing links between Ireland and Poland, says the comprehensively titled Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with special responsibility for Equality, New Communities and Culture.
This important (and increasingly vital-looking) sporting contest has spawned its own festival. PolskaÉire 2015 is supported by Ó Ríordáin’s department and the Polish embassy. It’s a State-wide celebration of sport, culture and politics.
Putting aside the nations' mutual appreciation, let's not forget where this entente cordiale might lead. What if some kids who have been born here declare for Poland? The Minister has thought this one through.
“Well, that could possibly happen. It will be absolutely devastating if that was to happen, but it might. That’s the whole thing – if you feel welcomed and empowered and valued in the country you’re living in, then why wouldn’t you want to represent them in sports?
“The important thing is not necessarily what happens on the football pitch, but how we treat each other. I am quite certain that we will have any number of different names playing for Ireland in future, which is what we hope they will want to do.”
He won’t be supporting Poland in the football then? “Absolutely not. I hope they lose 70 nil. [He laughs] Actually 7-0. That will do.”
Poland had a “very good result against Germany”. (Poland won 2-0 at home.) “This should have been an easier group,” says Ó Ríordáin.
His job is proving a fascinating one, says Ó Ríordáin. “I came into this job in July 2014. It was ‘Equality, New Communities and Culture’ and ‘New Communities’ was an interesting one. I asked what new communities we are talking about. How strong they are, how populous they are? The Polish population is officially the largest new community in Ireland, the Polish embassy says it is 150,000 strong.
“There is a kind of matrix of Polish schools around the country that the children of Polish people attend at weekends to keep their language alive, their culture alive, to be themselves.”
In another way, this can be a “barrier to integration. If they are determined to stay here and be a part of Irish society, they are not getting involved in the average pursuits of the soccer club, the GAA club”, says Ó Ríordáin.
“I was talking to the FAI and the reason we are having this festival now is that Ireland are playing Poland in this soccer match. I remember when Ireland played Poland in a friendly in Croke Park in 2008, coming home putting the key in the door and hearing a huge roar and thinking to myself: ‘That’s good, Ireland have just scored’. But Ireland hadn’t just scored, Poland had.
“There has been a huge and seismic change in our country, but we haven’t really taken the time to acknowledge it and celebrate it,” says Ó Ríordáin.
The FAI has told him there isn’t any huge evidence of eastern Europeans being involved in local soccer clubs. He hopes this will change. So, would he begrudge an Irish-born child with Polish parents supporting Poland?
“No, of course not. We have any amount of English players who play for Ireland and come from a very strong Irish community.
“I think that when it comes to football, the Irish soccer team is a good representation of who we are because you’ve had many types of players, some of whom have been brought up in orphanages. Some who were brought up in England.
"There are probably a lot of people who have been dismissive of players who have played for Ireland in the past, but if you look for instance at Kevin Kilbane, how Irish he is, and the Irishness he genuinely feels within him. Think of Terry Phelan, Mick McCarthy – these are people who know what it's like to feel Irish, to be in a country and have two identities."
Ó Ríordáin says he can understand why people might want to compete on a Polish team. However he thinks it is better if “people live together and understand each other. I don’t think that Polish people are easier to understand if you’re playing against them on a soccer team. I think it’s easier to understand people if you are playing on the same side.”
This applies to all the new communities in Ireland, he says. “People have a better understanding of eastern European culture, of West African culture, of South American culture and we are all doing it in concert with each other – rather than Polish people leading Polish lives in Ireland.
“It’s a bit like Irish people leading Irish lives in England. There’s a balance between cocooning yourself in your community, yet there’s also a way of keeping your identity strong against the mainstream of any other society. It’s a matter of striking a balance.”
He says that “we want Irish people to learn the value of having a new community here. What they bring to us . . . their values, their music, their culture, their traditions, the richness of their experiences. And you also want Polish people to feel welcome here, that they are part of Irish society and part of the Irish nation”.
Hence the current festivities.
“The whole idea of this festival is two-pronged – that the Polish community and other communities feel that they are being celebrated and acknowledged, but also that the Irish community have a lot to learn and a hand to extend.
“What we’ve had till now are anti-racism strategies, but an anti-racism strategy is building on a negative. It’s ‘we shall not say that . . . we shall not do that’. It’s one thing to have an anti-racism strategy in a sports club, it’s another to have an integration strategy, to go out and seek families or players or young people from a different culture to be involved in your club.”
And PolskaÉire is not all about kicking footballs and all kinds of drama, says the minister. “The vulnerability of work when you are a migrant worker – especially a woman. Work is significant, which is why it’s important to have a conversation about Polish workers’ rights, like Siptu are.
“And we also want to have those tricky discussions around homelessness and addiction issues – the same issues Irish people have when they’re abroad.
“Many migrants who come to Ireland have these issues too. They are away from home. They are away from their comfort zone, networks that can support them. There is a linguistic difficulty. There have been people who have fallen through the net, and we have to be mindful of that too.”
There are things Ó Ríordáin wants to come out of this festival. “It is about music. It is about sport. It is about culture, about drama, about humanity, about connections. It is about all those wonderful things.
“I think we could be proud of what we’ve done in Ireland. We have major things in the asylum system that need to change. But on integration, we have a lot to be proud of. We also have a lot to achieve and hopefully this festival will help.”
Does he think the PolskaÉire festival will achieve its aims?
“In one way, we can say that it is a bit frivolous to be talking about integration in terms of sport, but sport is a great way to discuss a clash of cultures and a clash of nationalities.
“And sometimes there isn’t a clash. We have more that unites us than divides us.”
Irish people are going to have to consciously uncouple from their competitive instincts during the Euro qualifier on Sunday if they are going to find out that what unites Ireland and Poland is greater than what divides them.
What does he think the score will be? "One-nil to Ireland. [Aiden] McGeady. No I've changed my mind. Jonathan Walters. " There you have it. A ministerial prediction. Place your bets now.
PolskaÉire 2015 details at justice.ie