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Questioning Bundee Aki’s right to play for Ireland says more about us than him

There has been no similar discussion in Ireland regarding the upcoming debut of Irishman Ian McKinley for Italy’s rugby team

IBundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw take part in the Captain’s Run at the Aviva Stadium ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

On Saturday, rugby player Bundee Aki will make his Irish debut against South Africa. Aki is from New Zealand and plays for Connacht. The current rules dictate that three years of residency qualify a player for eligibility in a national team, something which in 2020 will be changed to five years. There has been a certain amount of discussion surrounding the inclusion of Aki in the Irish team, - a discussion about “nationhood”, identity, and who gets to wear the green jersey.

While a discussion about residency rules and rugby has merit, we do need to be careful about the rhetoric. When these things come out clumsily, you never know who’ll end up interpreting concerns about the “Irishness” of the national team as a dog-whistle about race, identity and place. Genuine concern about the IRFU’s approach to project players can be used as a tool with which to bolster “anti-foreigner” sentiment.

It’s worth pointing out there there has been no similar discussion in Ireland regarding the upcoming debut of Irishman Ian McKinley for Italy’s rugby team, which has been framed as a personal triumph for the former Leinster player.

Perhaps the most seismic display of Irish national pride in a sporting context was during the 1990 soccer World Cup. Just six of Ireland’s squad of 22 then were born in Ireland. Players who aren’t born in Ireland, yet play for a national team, show their commitment to Irishness on the pitch.

Sport is an emotionally revealing activity, because like art, it is driven by passion and manifests as beauty and skill. It displays a truth. You can tell when people’s hearts aren’t in it. You cannot manufacture passion and dedication. You cannot pretend, no matter where you’re from, or where you granny is from. You know when a sportsperson doesn’t want to be there. If Aki does, then more power to him. When he wears that jersey, he becomes an Irish sportsperson, a member of the Irish team, someone to be cheered on, and a role model for youngsters freezing their fingers off on a training pitch in winter dreaming of being in his position.

On Claire Byrne Live on RTE, Rugby writer Neill Francis recalled watching Gary and Paul O’Donavan row for Ireland on television. He called them “uniquely Irish”. But the O’Donavan brothers aren’t uniquely Irish, they’re just Irish. Are you “more Irish” if your accent is particularly pronounced or you are prone to a particular phraseology? Hardly.

Creating a hierarchy of identity is a dodgy, and often ludicrous, thing to engage in, because deciding who is “more” or “less” Irish is completely subjective. We see that in the idiocy of American nationalism, driven by people who are the descendants of immigrants.

What does unique Irishness mean? Speaking Irish fluently? Playing hurling? Reciting the lyrics to ‘A Woman’s Heart’ flawlessly at 2am? One’s heart singing upon smelling Diageo, sorry, Guinness hops drifting over the river Liffey? If ‘no’ is the answer to all of those questions is one any less Irish? Of course not. Nationhood is changed all the time, as millions of Irish around the world have, and as many immigrants to Ireland have too.

What is the basis for asserting that someone such as Aki playing for Ireland is somehow wrong? It is unlikley that the IRFU will go about replacing every Irish player with new players from the southern hemisphere. But there is something primal and familiar in this concern, a fear of being replaced or cast aside, of one’s power being unseated.

Unfortunately for those who argue against Aki’s inclusion - despite the fact that this may not be their intention at all - these are the same irrational fears articulate by those who oppose immigration. Likewise they are enlisted by those who prescribe national identities based on their own likeness, or who complain about the rightful positions of Irish people (jobs, a place on a team) being “taken” by an “outsider”.

Irish people will often go to great lengths to talk about how they’re not racist. We have gone from being a monocultural society to 17.3 per cent of Irish residents being born outside Ireland, 810,406 people. This diversity is rarely reflected in public life, giving many Irish people the false sense that we remain monocultural.

The problem with this rhetoric around non-Irish-born players playing for Ireland is how it intersects with the bockety relationship white Irish people have with race in this country. We are a country that still trades in raw and basic racism, which we often excuse as “ignorance” as opposed to hatred or discrimination.

We saw this in the ridiculous attacks on Ibrahim Hawala, whom a chunk of the Irish population chooses to mistrust simply because he doesn’t look like them. “It says more about who they are and not who I am,” Hawala’s sister Fatima said about the negative comments on social media directed at her brother.

Indeed it does, because when we speak critically about other people’s identities, we are very often revelling the negative aspects of our own.