There is a strange cognitive dissonance at work among Irish soccer fans who recently decried Declan Rice’s decision to declare for the country of his birth. Rice, capped three times for the Republic of Ireland, this month announced after an extended period of contemplation and soul-searching, to commit his international future to England. Rice, who was born in Kingston-upon-Thames and plays his club football for West Ham, said in a statement posted to his Twitter account, “I am a proud Englishman, having been born and raised in London”.
That sentence was seized upon almost immediately by Irish fans, dismayed by the defection. How could he say such a thing now, having famously cried upon hearing Amhran na bhFiann before making his debut for Ireland? The fact of the matter is that identity is not always such an easy binary. “He’s Irish”, said teammate Shane Duffy after that debut performance, in response to speculation about whether Rice would hang around long-term. Duffy wasn’t wrong then, and he isn’t wrong now.
Rice also spoke in his statement of his pride in his Irish identity, passed on to him by his grandparents. The duality of his identity is entirely valid and natural, and something which this island has been increasingly familiar with since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. That document allowed for citizens of Northern Ireland to choose for themselves a British identity, an Irish identity, or indeed both, recognising the nebulous nature of nationality. It was a step in the right direction.
So why the animosity for a 20-year-old who has found it difficult to commit definitively to one part of himself over the other? At a basic level, the answer is that Rice is an exceptional footballer. The Republic of Ireland team has been starved of high-quality players since the heyday of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff over a decade ago. Those players had overlapped with Roy Keane, perhaps Ireland’s last truly world-class footballer, who in turn had overlapped with the generation of players who gave the country Italia ’90 and USA ’94. We have, in other words, been enduring years of drought at international level.
Rice had looked set to finally end that barren period. Coming at the turgid tail-end of Martin O’Neill’s tenure, he appeared like an oasis in the desert. The replacement of O’Neill with Mick McCarthy on a short-term deal, to be followed by former Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny after a spell leading the under-21s, suggested finally some long-term planning and investment in a new philosophy. Rice was to be the centre-piece of the new Ireland, a burgeoning Premier League star-in-waiting at the heart of our midfield.
That Rice is making such a splash in the English top-flight leads us back to the cognitive dissonance at work in the discourse around his decision. Irish soccer fans are so familiar with Rice’s enormous potential in large part because they see him on a weekly basis playing against their favourite teams. Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea: these are the teams a majority of fans in this country identify with. Surely, after some self-reflection, we may recognise in our own ability to live and die with the fortunes of a team embedded in the north-west of England, to the exclusion of our local teams, some related species of Rice’s own confusion.
While interest in and support of our own domestic league remains so low, we will continue to be dependent upon those who ply their trade across the Irish Sea, and often those who have been born there. It is not a new phenomenon for Ireland to prey upon English-born, Irish-qualified players who cannot get into the senior England team. We have built our greatest successes upon their shoulders, and to cry foul when somebody goes the other way reeks of hypocrisy.
What more could have been done in the Rice case? He came through our underage set-up and graduated to the senior team, exactly the way the system should function. Short of strategic indoctrination through Wolfe Tones albums and repeated viewings of The Wind That Shakes the Barley, there isn’t a lot we could have done. This wasn’t a failure of the FAI – one of the rarer sentences in the English language – and it wasn’t a moral failure on the part of the player himself.
It may be said that Rice’s rapid rise in profile made him rethink his international future. It has been argued that he began to realise, especially after speaking to England boss Gareth Southgate, that he had a realistic chance of being a fixture in the England team, and his decision is cynical and opportunistic. Even if that is the case, what is it but the inversion of the line of thought which has led so many of our most important players of recent decades to line out in the green jersey? If Rice himself, feeling both Irish and English, feels a greater affinity to the latter, is it not perfectly natural and understandable that, opportunities being equal, he would opt for the country of his birth?
It is clear from the length and depth of his statement, and the time taken to make the decision, that he did not make it lightly. He has not rejected Ireland on a whim, nor chosen England in haste after a purple patch of form. He has, at an incredibly young age, made a complicated decision which will affect the rest of his career, and despite our inevitable frustration, we should be mature enough to respect it. If anger needs an outlet, it should perhaps be directed at the FIFA rule which allows for players to switch allegiance despite having been capped at senior level.
This debate may well be worthwhile, though we must also be prepared for the limitations that could come along with it. It would restrict our pool of foreign-born players and force a greater reliance on home-grown talent. This is where we must acknowledge our own rejection of the League of Ireland, and the part we play, as fans, in the dearth of progression from the League to the senior national side. A country as small as ours cannot expect long-term success at international level without a strong and thriving domestic league. The solution to this problem is the solution to the Declan Rice situation. If we cannot reliably import our stars then we need to grow our own, and in the meantime we must accept that just as we can divide our loyalties between Dublin and London, so too can others.