Brexit is coming, like the formless, vague monster in a nightmare. Though its exact character remains mysterious, the time of its arrival is certain. On March 29th, the UK may exit the European Union, and the island of Ireland may potentially witness the return of a hard border between North and South, less than a generation after its celebrated and hard-won erasure.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement 21 years ago seemed to have consigned to history the sort of division which could soon reemerge. The 310-mile wound, which had, in effective terms, disappeared in the previous two decades, will likely resurface unmistakably, bleeding its division throughout the island.
Though Brexit’s fallout will affect other areas of life more profoundly, it is worthwhile to also consider the sporting implications. Sport is so often a reflection of society, and will serve as a good place to observe the ruptures that could soon emerge.
Sport’s ability to channel nationalism means that it has always been inherently political, but it abstracts that nationalism to a symbolic level. The 2007 Six Nations clash between Ireland and England at Croke Park was one of the most significant Irish sporting events in recent times, precisely because it was a deeply political occasion.
“The game itself was secondary, what mattered was the symbolic.”
Here you had the old enemy, England, playing a foreign game upon the hallowed turf of the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded to oppose the Anglicisation of Irish culture and life. Opposing them, an Irish team comprised of players hailing from North and South, supported on either side of the border. The game itself was secondary, what mattered was the symbolic.
Endless speculation around the likely toxicity of the atmosphere dominated the build-up to the game. The battles to be won on the field paled in comparison to the cultural and political battle which would be waged at anthem time.
When the moment arrived, the Irish crowd’s silent respect for God Save the Queen, and the vociferous defiance of its renditions of its own anthems was a tremendously healing moment. The country, in microcosm, displayed a maturity and self-assuredness that showed how far it had come. The most significant image which emerged from that game was not of an Irish try, but John Hayes’ tears as he bellowed Amhran na bhFiann.
Such a proof could only have come through sport. The platform had undoubtedly been provided by the political successes of the peace movement, but the perfect storm, this sea of symbolism, is what allowed it to be demonstrated both abroad and, more importantly, at home.
Brexit now threatens to turn us backwards, retracing the painful steps which had brought us towards and beyond such a place of progress.
The Irish rugby team, the only team of the major sports comprised of players from the entire island, is also currently its most successful. It is a symbol of unity and cooperation, supported both North and South, and has been a united Ireland team since its creation in 1879, surviving even partition.
Darren Cave, who plays as a centre for Ulster, wrote in a recent article for The Sports Chronicle, “after everything we’ve been through in Northern Ireland, can you imagine the most successful Ireland captain ever, Rory Best, having to drive through a hard border to play at the Aviva stadium?”
Cave’s image conveys the ridiculous separateness which Brexit will reintroduce. Best, hailing from Craigavon in Northern Ireland, has amassed over 100 caps for Ireland, playing his home games in Dublin. The idea of him needing any sort of justification to travel south seems outrageous. His international career has been a symbol of the benefits of inclusion and cooperation, and the image of him crossing a hard border between his home and place of work is a depressing indictment of the political fallout of the UK’s decision.
The League of Ireland, which recently kicked off its 2019 season, will also bear witness to this upheaval. Come late-March, Derry City FC will become the only UK-based club competing in an EU league. Derry began their footballing existence playing in the Irish League, the domestic football league of Northern Ireland.
Their current presence in the League of Ireland is directly due to the effects of the Troubles. Their Brandywell home was deemed too dangerous to host games during the height of sectarian conflict, and the logistical difficulties forced their withdrawal from the League. After a couple of years in the wilderness, they were invited to join the league south of the border.
“The debate around the issue has grown ever more vacuous.”
Discussing the effects of Brexit in concrete terms at the moment is an exercise in futility. Though the border has been a central stumbling block in negotiations in recent months, an agreement acceptable to both the UK government and the EU has not been found, and the debate around the issue has grown ever more vacuous.
The enormous uncertainty of a no-deal scenario means all sporting organisations on the island are currently in a holding pattern, with no tangible means of planning for an immediate future which remains, even this close to the withdrawal date, unknowable. Derry’s recent past offers a poignant example of where we had come from, and where we are seemingly being forced to return.
Mixed up with the symbolic of course are a myriad of practical issues. In the sport of horse racing, for example, there are real concerns that a no-deal Brexit will gravely affect the movement of horses between Ireland, France, and the UK. There currently exists a tripartite agreement between these countries which allows horses’ freedom of movement. Any restriction of this movement would, of course, be potentially ruinous for the state of British racing, and one indeed wonders if the horses should be allowed a second vote, should they now regret robbing themselves of a nice retirement in the south of France.
What all this uncertainty and brinkmanship has highlighted is the profoundly muddled nature of Irish identity and the Irish border. The peace which has been taken as a given for our generation did not come easily or quickly, and nor should it have been such an afterthought in the debate on Brexit. The sporting landscape of this island could well be about to change alongside the physical one, and not for the better. “Being a proud Ulster man and playing for Ireland should not be complicated in the twenty-first century,” writes Cave in his article. Depressingly for all of us, it’s certainly about to be.