Home Features MacKenna On Monday: Rice Saga Brought Out Ugliest Of Irish Tendencies

MacKenna On Monday: Rice Saga Brought Out Ugliest Of Irish Tendencies

INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Consider the following scenario.

A soccer player is born within a Fifa-recognised jurisdiction, has the talent, gets some luck, and stands out enough to be called up to the national team. He represents that country at underage, scores a goal, wins a trophy, and thrives up to under-21 level. It’s then he’s called up to their senior side.

Now an adult however, he has a change of heart about identity and thus decides this country isn’t for or of him. The national manager wants him though, gets in touch, talks, pleads, but he refuses to reconsider. Ultimately he shifts his allegiance.

James McClean has since played 60 games for us, becoming only the third active footballer after Packie Bonner and Roy Keane to win RTÉ’s Sportsperson of the Year.

We could have used a whole host of others’ backgrounds to throw people off while showing up the double-standards of many in the Republic of Ireland. After all, Anthony Pilkington didn’t even know he was eligible for us, Aiden McGeady played with Scotland Schools, Alex Pearce lined out until under-21 with them, Ciarán Clark was an under-20 with England and then there’s our consistent plucking from of our neighbours up north. There, Marc Wilson was an under-15 international, Darron Gibson went to under-16, Eunan O’Kane was another under-21 representative for them like McClean, while Shane Duffy was a B international.

Across all their stories and careers, you won’t have heard many complaints south of the border. However it turns out our keeping quiet and accepting their calls was the right reaction for the wrong reason. It wasn’t about their decisions and mindset, but our benefit.

Let’s be frank. It’s hard not to be bored when it comes to hearing and reading and seeing Declan Rice. He’s a young man who has had the courage to speak out about where he feels best represents him. That it’s the country where he was born, where he grew up, where he went to school, where he has always lived, and where he now works, ought to make sense.

So, big deal, right? Is that really worthy of all the fuss?

Even if he did play three friendlies for Ireland, that should do no more than bring up a debate around eligibility and why you should and shouldn’t tie people down in such a fluid arena, rather than thrusting Rice into the role of bad guy. And even if he did play underage with Ireland, that should do no more than bring up a debate about the over-eagerness of the FAI in trying to convince a mere kid of his Irishness when he couldn’t have fully known or understood himself yet, rather than allowing Rice to be seen as some sort of flip-flopper.

Maybe it was money that would be far greater in terms of endorsements and profile playing in white. Indeed this would be nothing new. In Maarten Meijer’s book, ‘Louis van Gaal: The Biography’, he tells the story of the manager’s annoyance at star players during the Netherlands’ 2002 qualifying campaign. That far back they saw it as no more than a break from club duty rather than a moment of national pride, thus they were replaced by youth.

Or maybe with Rice it was the chance to win which certainly isn’t going to come about here given our systems.

Tony Galvin

Or maybe it was just his evolution as a person. No matter, that’s his right and his business yet how many have spent recent days battling such logic to castigate him?

Of course the reality here is that this whole, tiresome episode doesn’t reflect so much on him as it does on some people in Ireland. That’s what is fascinating and is what needs to be tackled. Ours is a nation that preaches and sniggers at the red-faced jingoism of others, particularly with England around Brexit, yet when it comes to identity there’s a chunk that act just the same. It stinks of insecurity via a similar sort that caused many, when hurling came to Sky Sports, to go online and tell English people to tune in as if for their validation.

There are few better spheres than sport to show us up as hypocrites around this.

Take Fionnuala McCormack as a microcosm of how we babble out both sides of our mouths. When she is run off podiums at continental level by Kenyans dressed as Turks, we rightly bemoan it. But when our Barbarians-esque national rugby team win with mercenaries then it’s all well and good because this is multiculturalism and they drink Guinness and cry to Ireland’s Call. It doesn’t matter that in both of the above cases it’s bought-in athletes making a mockery of international sport when that should bother no matter the colours they wear.

Ireland Six Nations World Cup

In an era of vast globalistion, the entire idea of nationality in most strands has become complicated. People move about to the point that a sense of identity can shift but, for international sport to maintain a purpose, there needs to be boundaries. That rugby players are bought here and solely end up in Ireland because they were paid to move to Ireland goes against this. Contrast that with someone like Sanita Puspure who moved here to make a life and then ended up representing the country she made home. It’s very different.

But Rice and his situation adds yet another layer on top of this. Given our history of emigration through economics, war and choice, you’d think we would have a better grasp.

There are those elsewhere that are qualified to play for us because of such departures abroad, and that’s rightly recognised in FIFA’s rules. Maybe Rice did feel that way. And maybe he no longer feels that way. Yet telling someone how they should feel about identity is as outrageous as cocky and yet we do it over and over again.

For we’ve been here before.

Four years ago when Jack Grealish made a similar decision, there was similar uproar. Kenny Cunningham said at that time that Ireland should not think about calling up those who are not committed while Brian O’Driscoll even pitched in, expressing his full agreement, and added that wanting to represent your nation should be “part of your DNA”. That’s part of the problem though as Grealish had and likely still has two countries as part of his DNA and it reeks of arrogance that we should suggest our strands are somehow more important or valuable.

We have a very basic understanding of nationality and force it on those who have a very different understanding. As for playing underage and switching, think of the decisions you made and opportunities you took and turned down in your teens and how your views and beliefs changed in the years that followed. Now apply that to the likes of Grealish and Rice.

We can pretend Twitter is the lowest platform of human thought, but that’s to protect what we actually are as a society. The truth is it’s a reflection of much of the national psyche and it was there that a 20-year old Grealish born and raised in England to English parents was called everything from “wanker” to “nonce” with one remark simply reading “1916”. Grealish will have quickly realised he’d made the right decision.

You can be sure that Rice will have thought similar given the bile that has been spat his way for making a fair call too.

He can take solace in the fact that he’s made a mature decision though, having grown up.

It’s time many using him to bring out the ugliest of nationalistic tendencies do so too.

About Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.