Belfast Telegraph

Trevor Ringland: 'When I scored against England, both wings of the Maze cheered'

The former Ulster and Ireland star tells Adrian Rutherford of how he enjoyed his career, his dabbling in politics and his hopes for a peaceful future in Northern Ireland.

Q. You're best known for a sporting career which saw you play for Ulster, Ireland and the Lions. When did you realise you had a talent for rugby?

A. I enjoy sport and I went to Larne Grammar School, where rugby was the main sport for boys. I took it up there.

But my career really started to take a more serious direction when I went to university at Queen's.

I was part of a group of very good young players who came together at the same time - Nigel Carr, Philip Rainey, Kenny Hooks, Philip Matthews, David Irwin and so on. We were a serious group of players and Jimmy Davidson, who was our coach, developed in us an even more serious attitude to training.

We were a successful university side and got through on to Irish and British university sides, and the opportunities kept developing.

Q. Did any other sports interest you?

A. I always wanted to be Pat Jennings in goals, after I realised I could never be George Best. Golf was another interest. I would love to be like Rory McIlroy, but when he looks at a golf ball he sees a basketball, when I look at one I see a pea. I was fortunate to fall into a sport that I was good at.

Q. You played for Ireland, which has a united rugby team. How was that?

A. It was always built around a concept of friendship. It was an Irishness that could reflect a Britishness, and a Britishness that could reflect an Irishness.

The more I look at sport, the more I realise it actually enables us to have a far more complex identity than extremes would like us to have.

Sport is a really good example of an identity that we can all embrace. I am very proud of being from Northern Ireland - I'm an Ulsterman, I'm Irish and I'm British, and I'm also European.

Q. Is there a particular game that stands out?

A. The match against Scotland in 1985 was the start of our Triple Crown win.

We had a young team that wanted to play an attractive style of rugby, and a coach in Mick Doyle who gave us the confidence to bring out those skills.

That match really was the beginning of something, and it was a great game to be involved in.

Also, later on that season we drew with a very good French side in Dublin.

The negative side came against England. I had united the people of Ireland when I scored a try against England at Twickenham in the mid-80s. I have it on good authority that both wings of the Maze Prison cheered.

Then in my last match for Ireland in 1988 I let an English winger score three tries, and I united people again in saying 'he's useless, get rid of him'.

Q. In 1996 you organised a charity match after the Canary Wharf bombing. How did that come about?

A. The IRA ceasefire broke down and a friend, Irish rugby player Hugo MacNeill, rang me and suggested organising a match to show that the people of Ireland wanted peace.

We spoke to the IRFU and three important people, Sid Millar, Tom Kiernan and Bobby Deacy, and the IRFU gave it their support.

Using the contacts we had, we spoke to the Barbarians and they agreed to take part, so we had a rugby match featuring some of the best players from around the world.

It was very much about making a statement for peace.

But we also showed that day the consequences of not having peace, with young people who had suffered tragedy because of the violence on this island who were brave enough to come onto the pitch.

It emphasised to me that day that we have to value each other's children equally and make sure it never happens again.

Q. You were involved in the One Small Step campaign. Tell me about that.

A. It was a group from civic society who came together and said: We have to share the future, so can we share it constructively?

It was only meant to run for a year. It ran for a lot longer than that.

It was meant to be taken over by the politicians, who would drive it forward, but it didn't happen, and still hasn't happened.

There are three basic principles - everyone can do something to build a relationship and break down a barrier; secondly, we highlighted the good work that was going on and was continuing; and finally we wanted to challenge our leaders, because we couldn't continue to practise the politics the way we are doing so, and expect to have a stable and peaceful society.

We produced a book of 100 steps. We could have produced 10 books of people who were doing things to make a difference.

One Small Step showed solutions to our problems and it would be nice to focus on those rather than constantly just talking about the problems as if there are no solutions.

Ideally it would be great to roll out a One Small Step movement in each town and village.

Q. You have spoken about identity in the past. It is still a big issue for many people - why is that the case?

A. It is because exclusive concepts of identity have been used to define who we are. Those who want to divide us use it to alienate others.

They create an Irish identity that doesn't include a million other people on the island who see themselves also as British, or a British identity that doesn't include anyone who sees themselves also as Irish.

The challenge to those who use that exclusive concept of identity is to use inclusive concepts.

The Irish rugby team shows an Irish identity that can also be British. The Lions have an identity which is both British and Irish.

Rory McIlroy is a good example of someone who understands that it is far more complex.

He is proud to be from Northern Ireland and from Ulster. He's proudly Irish, proudly British and when he plays in the Ryder Cup he's proud to represent Europe.

Look at Paddy Barnes. He boxed for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games, and when he boxes, he boxes for all of us, whether it's with Northern Ireland or Ireland.

In the Olympics we have sportsmen and women from here competing for Team Ireland and others for Team GB, so we have a chance of winning more medals than anyone else.

If you buy into a more complex and inclusive concept of identity, it actually creates a stable society.

The uniting of people, whether in Northern Ireland, Ireland or across these islands, is achievable, and actually far more valuable than some form of constitutional unity or physical unity when you don't have a united people.

Q. You were briefly involved in politics when you were the Ulster Unionist candidate for East Belfast at the 2010 General Election. How did you find that?

A. I am deeply interested in politics, even though I don't like it. It was the biggest job interview ever but at least I had my wife saying nice things about me for six weeks.

I probably would have stood in the Assembly election the following year, but I had a big problem with my hearing. One ear was gone, and the other was down to about 40%.

For a year or two after the 2010 election, I thought it was going to be a deteriorating problem.

I had been told I couldn't have an operation.

Fortunately I have now had those operations, and it highlights the great work of the NHS. My hearing is now back to 70%.

But as for my political ambitions, that was the moment gone.

Q. Your time with the Ulster Unionist Party ended when then leader Tom Elliott said he wouldn't go to a GAA match. How did that happen?

A. This started two weeks before the leadership election when he spoke in east Belfast and came out with that.

It wasn't that he was just saying he wouldn't go to a GAA match, it was actually that he thought this was positive, a good thing.

My challenge was that he was the leader of unionism, and I expect the leader of unionism to go to a Gaelic match because Gaelic is very much a part of our society.

With the One Small Step campaign and various cross-community projects, I had recognised a lot of the good work going on in the GAA.

If people are reaching out, then you have to respond positively, and to me this was a negative.

The night of Tom's election, someone stuck a microphone in front of me and I gave a view, as I tended to do.

It developed that I put down that challenge. Tom wouldn't change, and I said that I would leave, so I did.

Was it right to leave? I think there's been a loss of a certain influence in the Ulster Unionist Party and strategically it doesn't know where it needs to go, and it doesn't quite understand what it stands for.

That's a pity, because it should be driving the debate on how we create a peaceful and stable Northern Ireland.

Q. Yet Peter Robinson went to a GAA match?

A. I knew Peter Robinson would go.

I sense Peter Robinson knows strategically where he wants to take Northern Ireland. I'm just not sure he's in the right party to do it, or he's equipped with the right qualities to do it himself.

Q. Do you regret issuing the challenge to Tom Elliott?

A. I think the best way to describe my feelings is that I regret leaving the party but do not regret the stance I took.

Q. So what do we need now?

A. I think we need a variation on NI21. I think the concept that Basil McCrea and John McCallister came up with was very good, but poorly executed.

We need a party that says we put Northern Ireland first, and looks to build relationships across this island, these islands and beyond.

One that says we need to focus on our own relationships, to grow the potential of this place in every way, and create a peaceful and stable future for ourselves and our children.

That would act as a dynamic against the current political dynamic, which is about a coexistence model in society.

In this current coexistence model we live together, but don't relate much to our neighbours. The barriers remain, and don't get broken down.

You need a sense of interdependence. A good example is an orchestra. They have to find ways of combining to produce good music.

Striving towards that is work without end.

Q. Do we have the right people to do that?

A. We have good politicians in all the parties, and it's how we bring those young politicians, who do want this place to work, to the fore.

Some of the older politicians are continuing to press the old divisive buttons, and in many ways it is time Gerry Adams left the scene.

He has been a plague on our lives and he just continues to mess, and we would be better off if he decided to retire.

Q. Can the Alliance Party fill that gap?

A. Alliance have the opportunity to be that Northern Ireland party, but they need to change and stand for something other than peace.

Alliance argue all the right things but they don't stand for anything.

They have to come off that fence. If they showed a bit of courage they could be that third party which can aspire for power or at worst become an opposition that properly challenges the divisive dynamics of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Q. Turning back to rugby, we're speaking barely a week after Ulster shipped 60 points against Toulon. What do you make of the current side?

A. I think it's a challenging period. We have had so many injuries to top players that it is very hard to look beyond that and say there are major problems there that need to be addressed.

We do need to look at the next group of players coming through.

But when you go through the list of injuries, it has clearly stopped the team being able to perform.

It is so unfortunate for the coach because he has not had those players available to him.

Any criticism you make has to be qualified by the issue of losing some amazing players for large parts of the season - the likes of Iain Henderson, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Ruan Pienaar - it goes on and on.

If you put those players back in a team against Toulon, it would be a very different game.

Q. The Rugby World Cup is just a few months away. What do you think Ireland can achieve?

A. The Irish provinces aren't doing as well as they have done recently, but they've become a very effective international team.

You always have to aspire that you can win a competition, but it's always going to be difficult for an Ireland team in a competition that does very much depend on the injuries you sustain as you go through that series of games. Other teams have more international players than Ireland have.

But I would hope that a semi-final place is a realistic ambition this time.

Q. Looking forward, there are plans to bring the World Cup to Ireland in 2023. What would that mean for Irish rugby?

A. It would be a fantastic event, plus the financial benefits which flow from these things are huge.

The Rugby World Cup is the third or fourth biggest sports event in the world.

But it's very much achievable. If New Zealand can host it, then so can Ireland.

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