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Irish diplomats look to cricket as Westminster relations hit sticky wicket

Tánaiste Simon Coveney with London rose, Laura Kennedy

A couple of weeks ago, upon winning cricket’s World Cup England’s captain Eoin Morgan won hearts and minds by emphasising his team’s diversity.

It was especially welcome because of the xenophobic rhetoric that has come from so many politicians, for the most part, Brexiteers, in recent months and years.

This week as some of the worst offenders of that ‘little England’ rhetoric took over the British government, Ireland’s top diplomats once again clung to cricket – and sport – as an exemplar of what best unites the people of these islands.

It might be hard for younger people to credit it but there was a time in Irish public life – in living memory – when Irish politicians would have publicly embraced cricket at their peril for fear of being ridiculed or denounced as ‘west Brits’.

Even the late Martin McGuinness was circumspect for many years about his great love of the game.

Although it helped in meetings with then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke who frequently favoured cricket metaphors – sometimes to the mystification of Irish negotiators.

It was against this recent history – and current political tensions – that the Embassy of Ireland and Tanaiste and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney welcomed the England and Ireland cricket teams, and MPs and peers from all parties to celebrate the first Test encounter against England at Lord’s last week.

Ambassador Adrian O’Neill, who before taking up post here had been instrumental in the Queen’s 2011 Irish State Visit that so transformed official relations between both countries, reminded welcome guests that cricket has actually been played competitively in Ireland – since 1792.

Irelands cricketers out to turn Lords green
22 July 2019; Ireland players pose for a Team photo during an Ireland Cricket training session at Lords Cricket Ground in London, England. Photo by Matt Impey/Sportsfile

Ireland’s first cricket game against England in 1855 was an Irish victory by 107 runs, he said.

“Two of Ireland’s Nobel Laureates for Literature, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, were serious cricket enthusiasts and cricket features in both Joyce’s Dubliners and Finnegan’s Wake,” he said although it was unclear how many members of the audience might have read, or sat through, any of those two writers’ works.

Ambassador O’Neill pointed out the head groundskeeper of the hallowed turf at Lords is, in fact, a Dubliner Carl McDermott – and one of the guests at the reception.

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“In more recent years Irish cricket has experienced a renaissance and has much to be proud of culminating in full Test status being awarded to Ireland and its current place at the top table of world cricket,” he said.

“We in Ireland are certainly very proud of the England captain Eoin Morgan’s role in England becoming World Cup champions. His achievement and that of his equally fabulous teammates was joyously celebrated on both sides of the Irish Sea.

“We also applaud Eoin for his eloquently acknowledging the ethnic inclusivity of his World Cup-winning team and powerfully reminding us that in both our countries the game of cricket is enriched by the diversity of communities who play and love the game.”

The Ambassador paid tribute to Cricket Ireland, an all-island body, for its work in developing the game across the island, in all communities: today 52,000 people are involved in the sport across Ireland, there are some 120 accredited clubs and 27,000 children registered in the schools’ programme.

Tanaiste, Foreign Minister and Ireland’s Chief Brexit negotiator Simon Coveney stressed how sports operate on a plane above politics in strengthening relationships between people in Britain and Ireland – and it is sorely needed.

The Minister explained he was in London to go to Lord’s to celebrate his life-long cricket fan grandmother’s own century.

“From a sporting perspective this is something very special, young people who have been playing cricket in Ireland for decades, who understand cricket and love this game, would have dreamed of Ireland playing England at Lord’s in a full Test. It’s something to really celebrate.

“In many ways we are reminded of how sport brings together on the island of Ireland and across these islands, whether it’s cricket, whether the excitement and success of our women’s hockey team last year in the World cup final in this city, whether its rugby, or indeed the golf in Royal Portrush which was an extraordinary success story for Northern Ireland with an Irish winner.

“When you hear people like Graham McDowell and Rory McIlroy talk with the kind of affection that they talked about Shane Lowry your realise power of sport to break down barriers and to essentially reset relationships in a way that sometimes politics fails to do.

“Sport in these islands even brings my family together and, believe me, there are many of us, and most of us have been shaped by the Anglo-Irish relationship through our lives, in terms of where we work, in terms of where we go to college, in terms of our career choices and where they start out and in terms of the friendships that we still sustain and maintain across the Irish Sea.”

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