Belfast Telegraph

There were two displays of unity in Dublin at the weekend ... but only one, at the Aviva, counted

Divisiveness of Mary Lou McDonald's speech in stark contrast to heroics of Ireland's rugby team, writes John Downing

It is a pleasant 10-minute dander from the RDS to the Aviva Stadium at Lansdowne Road. And for several hours on Saturday afternoon we got two vignettes of a sort of united Ireland in this most posh part of Dublin 4.

Each of these vignettes was so different in rather interesting ways. From mid-morning, the delegates arrived at the RDS for the enthronement of Mary Lou McDonald to succeed Gerry Adams as his 34-plus years as Sinn Fein leader formally ended.

A little later, the green shirts and shamrocks of Ireland's rugby men and women arrived in the area, availing of the benign early afternoon to sup a beer on the pavements outside the various pubs.

There was a strong presence of the blue of Italy; these fans would soon lift the stand rafters with their proud rendition of the appropriately named Il Canto degli Italiani (The Song Of The Italians).

Sinn Fein kicked off its handover party pageantry just about 15 minutes behind the appointed start of 1pm. The delay was caused by a late inrush of delegates, who numbered about 2,500. It was meant to be a show - and, as these things go, it was a good one, enthusing the faithful.

The Ireland versus Italy rugby game kicked off promptly at 2.15pm.

A late gift of a ticket - and a last-minute dash from the RDS to the Landsdowne Road south stand - allowed this writer to sample large chunks of both.

Obviously, the lure of a big international sports fixture - not to mention a chance to roar on a super in-form Keith Earls - just had a slight edge over a political conference, even a conference which helps pay the bills. But the similarities and contrasts were remarkable.

So, let's, as the old exam questions used to instruct us, compare and contrast them both.

The first and most obvious comparison was the strong presence of people speaking with the lilting cadences of Ulster. Both events had a strong presence of people from the north and, at each, they mixed easily and conversationally with people from every other corner of the country.

There were the unmistakable voices of Limerick, Cork and other parts south, the sounds of Galway, Mayo and other parts of Connacht, mingled with the voices of the Midlands and east. That admixture of Irish people from all parts is of itself a cause for joy.

But when we focus on the sounds of the north, the contrast begins to kick in.

It is fair to conclude that the northern presence at the Aviva was far more representative of the unionist tradition, while that at the RDS was exclusively nationalists espousing their own kind of republicanism.

Ulster's contribution to Irish rugby has always been remarkable. Three of their players were in the starting XV on Saturday, but it has often been more than twice that number.

At half-time, and later as the game ended as a contest, the Irish supporters mingled at the bar, watching the screens, or through the windows.

The northern contingent chatted affably with all-comers amid great speculation about the hopes for Irish rugby this year. It was a form of Irish unity in action in the best possible way - the people coming together.

It was a reminder that, in the darkest days of the 1970s and 1980s, the IRFU kept up the cross-border links and rose above the violence. It is a simple fact that, through the awful years, it was the rugby fraternity who often did most for unity in Ireland.

Back at the RDS, Mary Lou McDonald was making her first speech as the new party president.

She, too, was speaking about unity as she said she wanted to secure and win a referendum on Irish unity. She wanted to achieve this with respect, graciousness and generosity.

"Irish unity cannot be a crude exercise of simply stitching north to south and returning to business as usual. We do not want a 32-county Free State. We want a new Ireland, in which rights are guaranteed, cultures respected and the diversity of our identities embraced," she said.

This stuff can appear well-intentioned, but it's no use to our rugby friends at Landsdowne Road. But the close of Ms McDonald's speech put the kibosh on things with "Tiocfaidh ar la", thus invoking an IRA slogan.

The Dublin Central TD, one of the so-called post-war generation of party luminaries, had to salute the party's violent past.

The final pay-off read in full: "So, my friends of Sinn Fein. Let's get to work... up the Republic, up the rebels, agus tiocfaidh ar la".

Now that is a one-sided vision of unity which won't work.

Belfast Telegraph

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