Ireland was partitioned a century ago this year, but for most sporting bodies it was a case of business as usual, writes Cormac Moore
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, boxer Wayne McCullough, from a loyalist part of Belfast, carried the Irish tricolour as the youngest competitor of the Irish squad. He won a silver medal representing Ireland four years later in Barcelona.
Amateur boxers from Northern Ireland box under the governance of the all-Ireland body the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) and box for the whole island in international competitions, except for the Commonwealth Games.
In fact, most sports that feature at the Olympic Games are governed on an all-Ireland basis and have been so since before, and after, Ireland was partitioned a century ago this year.
For example, in the Tokyo Olympics, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, from the north and south respectively, will represent Ireland in the golfing competition.
Here, sport reflects wider society, where most organisations governed on an all-Ireland basis before partition, remained so afterwards, highlighting that the political partition of Ireland was not matched by a social and cultural one on the island, by and large.
The two Irish political jurisdictions that came into existence after partition allowed social and cultural organisations to react to the creation of the Irish border as they saw fit. There was no compunction nor obligation for most organisations to follow suit once the new international frontier was created with partition.
This is, in many respects, a unique feature of the partition of Ireland compared to other divided societies. Most organisations in places such as India, Korea, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were compelled to recognise newly created international frontiers. Once a territory became divided, bodies within that territory tended to divide also.
Politically and economically, both Irelands moved further and further apart. However, most organisations, including ones with a strong unionist and Protestant make-up, have remained united since partition.
Even though most members of the Church of Ireland were based in Northern Ireland at the time of partition, the machinery of the Church remained largely based in the south. The divinity school and the headquarters of the representative Church body remained in Dublin and the General Synod continued to meet there.
Unionist politicians, who spurned all efforts to co-operate with the Free State government on political matters, called for Irish unity on issues such as sport.
Promoting cross-border co-operation at an Irish Hockey Union event in 1925, northern minister of labour and future prime minister John Andrews commented: “For Irishmen, no matter in what part of Ireland they lived, that the sooner they learned to put the spirit that was in sport into their public dealings with one another the better it would be for each and all of them.”
Bodies remained all-Ireland entities for a variety of reasons such as historical inertia, financial reasons, self-interest, and pragmatism. William O’Brien, leader within the labour movement, was in many ways correct in 1926 when he claimed: “Partition... prevails almost exclusively in the political sphere.”
For bodies with a homogenous profile, there was little difficulty in remaining united. For those like the labour movement, whose membership consisted of Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalists, and international socialists, partition highlighted the differences among their membership.
Many with a diverse demographic, such as the Irish Trade Unions Congress, remained united by acknowledging the changed circumstances and by introducing new structures to accommodate members based in Northern Ireland.
Inoffensive emblems were adopted. In sports such as rugby and golf, this often took on the form of a four provinces flag and the use of neutral anthems. Northern members were granted significant degrees of autonomy. Measures were taken to limit the impact of partition.
The ambiguity, fluidity, and uncertainty surrounding partition provoked many responses from organisations in religion, trade, labour and sport, the most common one being to remain governed on an all-Ireland basis in post-partition Ireland.
Even in the political sphere, unionist politicians agreed to maintain all-Ireland functions for pragmatic reasons. The Northern Ireland government still had to co-operate with the Irish Free State on issues such as railways, electricity, lighthouses, agriculture and postal services.
Five railway companies crossed both sides of the border. Both governments co-operated on the Erne hydro-electricity scheme. Lighthouses remained under the control of the Commissioners of Irish Lights in Dublin. Occupying a shared space, all-Ireland structures needed to be maintained.
Organisations founded before 1921 tended to continue on their previous all-Ireland basis, while organisations founded after 1921 were more likely to observe the border. It was rare for any organisation to split on a north-south basis that was formed before 1921.
The partition of bodies in Ireland was only common to those with direct links to the Northern Ireland government, including government departments, statutory bodies for professions like the pharmaceutical industry and lobbying groups. It was rare for other bodies to split.
Football was among the rare ones that did split along partitionist lines in 1921. Although the division in Irish soccer occurred the same year as the partition of Ireland, it was not the primary reason for the split. The split was primarily caused and nurtured by internal political factors.
While the political climate in Ireland at the time and issues over identity were contributory factors, the difference in internal governance structures between football and other sports provides the most compelling evidence of why most sporting organisations remained all-Ireland bodies and football did not.
Politically, the new jurisdictions moved further and further apart. No organisation or group was beholden to national political decisions, they were free to make their own decisions for their members, without interference in almost all cases.
Socially and culturally, there were many differences, but also many links between north and south, links that remain to this day.
Dr Cormac Moore is the author of Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland (Merrion Press, 2019)