Andrew Trimble – For Ulster and Ireland review: Irish rugby gives the lie to the idea that unionists are unbending

Does rugby provide a template for progress for anyone considering Irish unity?

<span style="font-family: Arial, sans-serif; ">A hand injury picked up playing for Ulster against Treviso means Andrew Trimble will miss Ireland's final two Six Nations matches against Wales and England. Picture by Press Association</span>
Andrew Trimble playing for Ireland in 2017 (Press Association)
Andrew Trimble: For Ulster and Ireland,
RTE 1 Monday and RTE Player

Rugby is a remarkable sport in Ireland.

Not just that we have one of the best teams in the world despite it being the third most popular sport in a small country.

It’s also how rugby has managed its way through the political minefield of partition and different allegiances.

The IRFU deserves praise for the way it has managed these challenges with quiet conversations and agreements around an alternative anthem, the choice of flags and a spirit of inclusion.

Northern Ireland’s unionist community also deserves plaudits for giving its full support to this 32-county team.

Andrew Trimble at Croke Park
Andrew Trimble at Croke Park

Is there a greater example of how solid that support is than the Ireland win over France earlier this month?

For the first time in decades there wasn’t a single Ulsterman in the match-day 23, yet I didn’t hear a single word of anger. Most Ulster supporters accepted that the Irish team had been picked on merit.

It also gives the lie to the idea of unbending unionists who inhabit the world of Paisley’s ‘never, never, never’.

It is unionists who have made the most sacrifices to be part of this team.

After partition, the IRFU survived by agreeing to Dublin and Belfast hosting alternate internationals and the team standing to different anthems - Amhrán na bhFiann in Dublin and God Save the King in Belfast.

That lasted until the 1950s when internationals were played exclusively at Lansdowne Road, under the tricolour and the Soldier’s Song.

When Andrew Trimble (70 Irish caps) explained this to Limerick’s Barry Murphy (4 caps) he was open-mouthed.

This unionist generosity has been reciprocated with the adoption of Ireland’s Call as the singular away anthem and joint home anthem, along with the flying of two flags to represent the team – the tricolour and the yellow and red provincial flag of Ulster.

It should be remembered the shamrock is the official symbol of Irish rugby and that’s why the IRFU often hand out shamrock flags and tricolours are less common than in other sports.

Trimble, originally from Coleraine, made this thoughtful documentary to consider a central question for this cross-border cooperation - how can be a proud Ulster-Scots Protestant also be an Irishman?

It’s a fundamental question for anyone considering the future unity of this Island and perhaps rugby provides a template for progress.

Trimble investigated Ulster’s connection to Scotland and we saw some fascinating national flag proposals of the 19th century.

Thomas Francis Meagher’s original design for the tricolour, with the red hand of Ulster on the middle white stripe, left Barry shocked.

Another proposal saw the Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian traditions represented in a tricolour of green, red and blue.

He also meets some interesting people, including the worshipful master of an Orange lodge who doesn’t consider himself Irish but is an Ireland rugby fan and attends as many games in Dublin as he can.

And to be fair, there have been difficult times in the Irish rugby journey.

England coming to Lansdowne Road in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday and Nigel Carr’s career ending in 1989 when, along with two team-mates, he was injured by an IRA bomb on the border as the trio were making their way to training in Dublin.

Andrew Trimble, Kyle Paisley and Mo Hume
Andrew Trimble, Kyle Paisley and Mo Hume

The complex issues of identities in Northern Ireland are considered with David Trimble’s daughter Vicky, Ian Paisley’s son Kyle and John Hume’s daughter Mo.

At the end of his journey, Andrew Trimble returns to one of his finest triumphs in green – Croke Park in 2007.

When Ireland beat England in the Six Nations at the home of the GAA both anthems were played, sung and respected, Amhrán na bhFiann and God Save the Queen.

It was a glorious moment.