Wednesday 30 November 2011

For Queen and Country?

A nation’s anthem can inspire. A stadium can erupt into song and carry a team to victory. The respect and loyalty displayed by players and fans alike during the exchange of anthems is testament to the power of sport.

The anthem of the Northern Ireland Association Football club is “God Save the Queen”, which is the Anthem of the State of the United Kingdom. This is also the anthem for the England Association Football team, meaning that when England plays Northern Ireland, both sets of fans share their team’s anthem. Though part of the United Kingdom, Wales and Scotland pride themselves on their own, distinct anthem. The current Northern Ireland anthem links the team inextricably to the Queen of England, despite the fact that the Monarch is not the Head of State of a significant proportion of people who live in Northern Ireland. This, in itself, is divisive.

Until the partition of Ireland in 1921, the Irish Football Association (IFA) had governed soccer across the island. It was a decision by clubs in Dublin to form the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) that instigated the division in the island’s sporting unity. Since this schism, the chants throughout Windsor Park have come to be perceived by some as hostile towards other cultures within the region. Of course, this attitude is not unique to the IFA; most soccer stadiums across the world involve such behaviour. However, the relevant question for the IFA now is how to run a truly representative sports club.

Gerry Armstrong, a veteran of Northern Ireland football, has said this week that there should be a debate about the choice of anthems played before Northern Ireland matches. It is argued that an anthem should be inclusive of the present demographic in the region and more sensitive to its shared heritage. Indeed, many sports in Ireland are today thriving with a cross-community fan base – golf, rugby and, increasingly, cricket. In fact, it is only a minority of sports that are not organised on an all-island basis.

In the upcoming London Olympics in 2012, an agreement between the British Olympic Association and the Olympic Council of Ireland stipulates that athletes from Northern Ireland may represent either Team GB or Team Ireland. Team GB refers to Great Britain in its title, but extends its claim to include willing competitors from Northern Ireland. Team GB thus claims to represent all of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is not part of Britain, and so to be impliedly subsumed into Team GB is nominally incorrect. Team Ireland welcomes athletes from Northern Ireland, but principally refers to the Irish Republic. The ultimate choice lies with the athlete, though it does seem misleading that a person from Northern Ireland should compete under the name of Great Britain, a distinct island. If the British camp were to call itself Team UK – indeed if ‘Britain’ and ‘the UK’ were not erroneously treated as synomymous by politicians and press – this territorial confusion would be avoided.

Gerry Armstrong’s comments come in the same week as Peter Robinson’s message of a “new Northern Ireland”. In a more inclusive and less sectarian society, a wonderful opportunity to share culture is in the celebration of sport. In light of the controversial switching of players' allegiances between the two teams on the island, the IFA and FAI will have to discuss the growing difficulties sooner or later. The spirit of pride evident during the most recent Rugby World Cup demonstrates how a single Irish team can be a positive and successful ambassador for this island on the international stage. The debate on an appropriate national anthem for Northern Ireland is a necessary first step towards a more inclusive representative, but it is hoped that the advantages – both sporting and cultural – are realised before long.

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