Ken Early: Republican slogans strangely back in vogue in the sporting realm

Daily drip-drip of horror easily forgotten by a young Rice or the crowd at Madison Square Garden

Mick McCarthy: his forthright response in Iran in 2001 helped to quell questions about  Irish identity. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mick McCarthy: his forthright response in Iran in 2001 helped to quell questions about Irish identity. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

What a week it’s been for the IRA.

From Madison Square Garden, from Alan Partridge’s couch, from Declan Rice’s Instagram history their name rang out, loud and clear and true.

This evening Ireland kick off the Euro 2020 qualifiers in a British imperial outpost known for an infamous IRA-linked episode. We knew they hadn’t gone away, but this week it’s felt like a second coming.

Declan Rice’s apology-statement said that when he posted Up The Ra as a 16-year-old, it “was not meant to be a political opinion”. If this sounds implausible to you then you should watch Michael Conlan’s ring-walk in New York, where a huge Irish crowd belted out “Ooh Aah Up the Ra” as though it was as innocent as Ole Ole Ole.

Sure, that slogan used to be the bluntest of Irish political opinions, but a lot of time has passed, a lot of things have been forgotten, and now it appears to have evolved into just another more-or-less-ironic marker of Irishness, like buying sliced pan before a storm.

Rice was simply trying his hardest to fit in to the perceived expectations of his new environment (by now we can probably identify this as a definite character trait).

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was about the same age Rice was when he was posting on Instagram. I can’t think of many contexts in which Up The Ra would have felt appropriate in an Ole Ole kind of way. It’s not as though nobody back then ever said Up The Ra, but when they did they usually said it like they meant it. When Enniskillen and Warrington and the Shankill fish shop were fresh in the mind, Up The Ra didn’t have so much of a feelgood vibe.

Anyone who lived through the Troubles remembers the relentless daily drip-drip of horror and shame and guilt, the oppressive sense of dreariness and futility.

For those who were spared having to live through it in real time, whose perspective is not clouded by remembered emotions, you can see how the outline of the war might resolve into something a little simpler; a kind of Star Wars story of freedom fighters against an evil empire whose injustice was plain to all.

Maybe that’s part of why it lately feels as though a lot of that latent Irish anti-Englishness is no longer quite so latent. It feels good to identify with the oppressed rebels against the empire – especially when what used to be the empire has been making such a show of itself.

When you look at the history of Irish-British relations over the last few years, from the annual James McClean poppy hatefest to the collapse of Stormont to the Bloody Sunday inquiry to the ongoing Brexit trainwreck, perhaps it would be more surprising if the markers of militant republicanism weren’t coming back into fashion.

Different tribes

And yet something about this trend reminds you of the way a lot of English people born in the 1950s and 60s lately can’t stop boasting about the way they stood up to Hitler.

The Mark Francois school of Brexiteers and the Up The Ra crowd at the Conlan fight appear on the surface to be very different tribes. But they have this much in common: they’re both firmly convinced that they are history’s good guys, and self-reflection is something for other people to worry about.

As a declared Irishman who is always described in the British press as a Yorkshireman, Mick McCarthy has had plenty of opportunity to ponder questions of national identity.

I remember seeing him in Tehran in 2001 answering Iranian journalists who questioned his Irish credentials; you were born in England they said, how can you claim to be Irish?

Just imagine, Mick said, imagine you moved to England, and you met a nice girl, and together you had a son, and he turned out to be a particularly good footballer. And his idol was Ali Daei. Are you telling me he shouldn’t be allowed to play for Iran?

Everyone seemed impressed by this answer – it helped to hear Mick deliver it with a lot of feeling. If only Declan Rice could have been there to hear it.

During the week, in an interview with the English FA, he pranged another sharp stick into an exposed nerve of Irish football by outlining his own simple nationality formula: if it quacks like a duck...

“As you can hear, I am English,” Rice said, with the now-familiar ear-to-ear beam he assumes when trying to fit in with a new group. You wonder how many of the English-accented players in the Ireland squad either think the same way as Rice, or assume that everyone else in the squad is secretly thinking this about them.

Actually the accent divide never seems to have been a big problem in Ireland teams of the past, so let’s hope that’s not another thing that’s about to change.

Gibraltar is a good game to begin with, assuming Ireland avoid the kind of meltdown Scotland suffered in Kazakhstan.

Victory is the minimum required; a good performance and we can start to imagine ourselves at the beginning of a magical journey, culminating who knows where – perhaps in June next year, with a whole Aviva Stadium full of Ireland fans joyfully chanting Ooh Aah Up The Ra to drown out the match opening ceremony muzak. We can but dream.

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