‘WHO can criticise Ireland for doing as Scotland does? No sensible person’, says Andrew Wilson
Identity is a fascinating thing. How we define ourselves, and how others see us, can be so powerful and wondrous, but also so dark and destructive. It is one of the oldest tools in the box of tricks deployed by empires. They have been moving people around like toy soldiers since time began, playing to local and national identities within states to, as Caesar may have said: “Divide et impera” – divide and conquer.
As a strategy it has rarely failed to work in the short term, but almost always fails in the long term. As do empires.
Britain did it, of course. And the peoples of Ukraine are now paying the price of the same game played by successive Soviet regimes. It is said by some that when Nikita Khrushchev finally gave Crimea to the Ukraine he was possibly a little drunk. Who can know?
But it is also hard, for me at least, to gainsay the feelings and motivations of any group within a state. If they are not comfortable in the national or “state” skin they are in, something requires to be done or give.
I was contemplating all of this with my eyes firmly on Russia and Ukraine last week when I read a more gentle identity tale from much closer to home. George Biagi from Ayrshire has followed Tommy (Tommaso) Allan in being selected for the Italian rugby union squad for this weekend’s RBS Six Nations fixtures.
We can only hope that they won’t bleed too much talent from the Scottish squad in their choosing. But I wonder if I was alone in feeling a mild chuckle of joy at the fact our Scots Italian community had a new bridge to celebrate to their old country.
I fear there remains less warmth in football towards the two Irish talents that Scotland will face in their forthcoming Euro 2016 qualifiers. When midfield talents Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy chose Ireland over Scotland they were hounded by fans and in the media.
I believed then it was a shame for Scotland in sporting terms that they chose Ireland. But I still believe that the greater and true shame was the reaction they suffered at such a tender age.
It is a measure of the civility and maturity of our culture that we respond to all such news with the same intense relaxation, indeed indifference, as most met the Italian rugby news.
That we have such a mixed and fickle response depending on the player and the country says a whole lot more about us than it does about any individual sportsperson.
Both Scotland and Ireland are small countries with large historic outflows of population giving us strong diasporas on which to draw. One of the sporting upsides of the economic downsides of our lost sons and daughters is the grandparent rule allowing us to select from a far greater pool than our domestic population base. Good. We might as well reap what positives there are.
So who can criticise Ireland for doing as Scotland does? No sensible person. And who should criticise any one player for the choice they make? For me the same rule applies.
If the choices made are purely sporting, then plenty of us are guilty of the same motivation in putting our personal and family needs first in our own career choices. But what if the choices are made for reasons that reach deeper into the sense of self: where we are from and the skin in which we feel most comfort? Then an even greater degree of understanding should be shown, not less.
If those two young men felt drawn for other reasons to truly prefer the country of their grandparents, over the one in which they were born and raised, then it should be a signal to us all about how we collectively made it feel for them.
In my experience of life, the scar of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bigotry has been healing with each passing year. But still its pain is felt. And while one twinge chews the anxious stomach of one of our sons and daughters it remains completely unacceptable.
How ironic it is that the very voices raised in anger against McGeady and McCarthy were the echo of why they may have made that decision in the first place.
I doubt the time will ever come when we can declare the process of human civilisation complete. But one of the signals that we are truly on our way will be when it is always okay for everyone to choose the identity they feel and express it as they choose without fear.
Until that day the pain of its manipulation will be played out in places as varied as the streets of Crimea and the stadiums of Scotland. Enough of that please.
So when Ireland take the field at Hampden in November I hope that the famous roar is focused on supporting our own side rather than condemning any of theirs. Because, like few other national divides, so much of “they” are “we” and vice versa. «