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Gavin Mairs: Why it's time to take a stand on anthems

As rugby supporters vent anger over the decision not to play God Save the Queen at tomorrow's Ireland v Italy game - the first international at Ravenhill, Belfast, for 53 years - there have been calls for an open debate on the flags and anthems issue. Gavin Mairs reports

It's May 25, 1987, and Trevor Ringland is lining up for Ireland's first ever match in the inaugural Rugby World Cup against Wales in Wellington. The Welsh team and their supporters had just given a hearty rendition of their anthem 'Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau/Land of My Fathers'.

The Irish team, in contrast, stood on in silence. Then, over the tannoy, came a crackled tape recording of The Rose of Tralee. Ringland and the Irish players just looked at each other.

As the Ireland rugby team was drawn from both sides of the border, the decades-old protocol for anthems was that for games at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, Amhrán na bhFiann (The Solider's Song) was played while God Save the Queen was played for games at Ravenhill.

But no anthem had been previously played when the team was on foreign soil.

"Now there are many songs you are going to lay down your life for, but a really bad tape-recording of the Rose of Tralee was not one of them," recalls Ringland, who went on to win 34 caps for Ireland as well as play in two Triple Crown winning sides and represent the British Lions.

Profile

Twenty years later and Ireland are preparing for another World Cup, which kicks off in France next month. Since Ringland and the Ireland team stood for the Rose of Tralee in New Zealand, rugby has changed beyond recognition. In 1995, to rectify the embarrassing situation that occurred during the 1987 World Cup, the Irish Rugby Football Union, embracing the spirit of optimism that followed the paramilitary ceasefires at the time, asked Phil Coulter to pen a new rugby anthem to bridge sectarian and constitutional divides.

And thus Ireland's Call was born, which hails the "The four proud provinces of Ireland, together standing tall. Shoulder to shoulder we'll answer Ireland's call ... "

The game of rugby is now professional and its profile has soared to unprecedented levels. Ireland, in a sustained period of unprecedented success, are regarded as one of the real contenders for the World Cup.

As part of those preparations, tomorrow Eddie O'Sullivan's side will play their first senior international at Ravenhill, the home of Ulster rugby, for 53 years when they entertain Italy.

The game was sold out in days, despite the Ulster Branch's move to increase the ground's capacity from 12,800 to 14,000 with the erection of temporary stands. But Irish rugby, despite being one of the few sports that represented a beacon of light during the dark, dark days of the conflict through its all-Ireland dimension which did its best to leave politics at the door, stills finds the issue of anthems under debate.

While Ireland's Call is played as the team's anthem outside Ireland, the established protocol to play the Republic's anthem Amhrán na bhFiann for games played at Lansdowne Road has continued as well, ensuring the Irish team now has to stand for two songs before going into battle.

That has often put the Ulster players in an awkward position, with most standing respectfully for the Soldier's Song before singing Ireland's Call, which itself is derided by some quarters as nothing but a laughable dirge. And now that an international has returned to Belfast for the first time since 1954 - when some southern-based players lodged a complaint at having to stand for the British national anthem - some rugby supporters in the province are angry that the IRFU has now ditched the protocol of playing God Save the Queen at Ravenhill and insisted that only the IRFU flag, rather than the Union flag, is flown alongside the Italian flag.

Almost 800 supporters debated the issue on the message board of Ulster Rugby's official website, with almost 80,000 hits on the thread.

Many argue that having gone to Lansdowne Road for years and stood respectfully for the Soldier's Song, even at the height of the Troubles, they feel game's governing body has broken its side of the bargain.

Protocol

Another contributor wrote: "It seems the IRFU no longer recognises Northern Ireland as being British and instead has rebranded the Irish rugby team as a Republic of Ireland team, ie, Soldier's Song, Irish Tricolour etc. Therefore, it's time for Northern Ireland to have their own rugby team unless the IRFU change their mind. Otherwise, Ulster players are just playing for a foreign country without any recognition of their identity."

The IRFU and Ulster Branch, however, are united in the change of protocol.

"With both Lansdowne Road and Thomond Park due to be redeveloped around the time of the fixture, Ravenhill was our next choice for the visit of Italy and we're delighted to be able to bring the fixture there," says an Ulster Rugby spokesperson.

"The Ulster Branch and the IRFU stand together on the flags to be flown and anthems played next week. The protocol is as it would be for any game played nowadays outside the Republic of Ireland.

"The Ulster Branch are delighted to have an international match at Ravenhill and the vast majority of rugby fans are concentrating on that rather than flags and anthems. When the Ireland Under-19 team played in the IRB World Championships at Ravenhill in April, God Save the Queen wasn't played, only Ireland's Call, and nothing was said about that."

Charity work

But Ringland says the time is right to have an open, mature debate on the issue.

The Ulster Unionist Party member is well-known for his public profile on issues of reconciliation, cross-community activity and charity work, and, along with Hugo MacNeill, for the Peace International at Lansdowne Road in 1996 between Ireland and the Barbarians. And while his preference is that the original protocol would remain in place, he believes it is time to take politics right out of rugby internationals.

"As an Ulster player travelling down to play for Ireland from a unionist and British background, Irish rugby was always an example of the way Irishness could accommodate Britishness and Britishness accommodate its Irishness," says Ringland, whose father was an RUC Sergeant.

"My ideal situation was that you played the respective anthems north and south but that's not going to happen.

"Maybe it is time that we just took politics right out of sport and play Ireland's Call in the future.

"And if there is a requirement, which there sometimes is, if a dignitary visits, for example, if a member of the Royal Family came to visit Belfast there would be an obligation probably to play God Save the Queen.

" By the same token, if the (Irish) President attends matches in Dublin, as she often does, then there is a protocol that demands that a short piece of the Soldier's Song should be played, then that has to happen.

"But neither anthem of Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland represents all the people of Ireland so Ireland's Call works. In some ways it would be unrealistic to ask a lot of players from the south to stand for God Save the Queen because Ireland has moved on so much but you can't argue then that the Soldier's Song is an inclusive song. There is a debate that needs to be had.

"I am not calling for the Soldier's Song (at Lansdowne Road) to be scrapped but what I am really saying is that it is probably a natural consequence of the decision (not to play God Save the Queen at Ravenhill)."

Ringland has long cherished rugby's position in Ireland as a sport that could accommodate the contrasting cultures and politics that divided the country everywhere else.

Tough times

There were tough times, like when his Ulster and Ireland team-mates David Irwin, Nigel Carr and Philip Rainey were caught up in the roadside bomb that killed Lord Justice Gibson and his wife.

It was April 27, 1987, and the players had been travelling from Dublin having attended a training session for that inaugural World Cup.

The injuries Carr sustained ended his playing career just as he was reaching his prime. Ringland had been just 20 minutes behind them. Ringland's own father Adrian couldn't sit in the same seat twice at Lansdowne Road for security reasons.

By the same token, he recalls a try he scored against England at Twickenham in 1984 which was cheered by two prisoners in opposite wings of the Maze prison with whom Ringland had previously been involved with in a political discussion.

"During the worst of the Troubles, it was things like rugby that kept the foundations of relationships going and meant there was a base there which when we came out of the Troubles we could find a new and better way of building relationships," addsRingland, who is now chairman of the One Small Step campaign to break down sectarian barriers.

"It is different for other sports. I think it is appropriate that Northern Ireland has its own soccer team and that it can compete with the Republic of Ireland team and you can enjoy that competition.

"When you play rugby for Ireland, you are also representing all the people of Northern Ireland. And when you look at the work the Irish Football Association has done and the supporters in particular who have bought into the whole thing, I think when the Northern Ireland football team runs out, they are trying to represent all the people of Northern Ireland.

Tourism

"Hopefully if we get a new stadium built this can be the first of many games for Ireland up north which will not only have benefit of being a major sporting event in Northern Ireland but also the economic and tourism benefits that flow from that.

"Hopefully with people having come here and experienced the friendship that we generally show to others but sometimes haven't shown to ourselves, it will make them come back again.

"Tomorrow's game will hopefully show Northern Ireland and Ireland in a good light."

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