Published June 1999The Irish Government refuses visas to the Yugoslav Football Team
Last week the (soccer) Football Association of Ireland (FAI) announced that the forthcoming match in Dublin, between the Irish national side and Yugoslavia, would not be broadcast into Yugoslavia. The decision was justified on the basis that the Yugoslav Football Team is closely identified with the military establishment in Belgrade, and that the match would be used there for propaganda purposes. The match is one of a number of qualifiers for next year's European Championships, in a group in which the islands of Ireland and Malta find themselves poised against Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Croatia.
This week the FAI called on the European Football Assocation, the governing body for the sport in Europe, to postpone the match due to be played in Dublin on Saturday 5th June. When they refused to do so, the Irish Government intervened at the 11th hour, refusing to issue visas to the Yugoslav team. So the match is off and, once again, the myth that politics and sport shouldn't mix has been exploded. Of course they mix - national teams aren't a whole stretch of the imagination away from national armies - when we shout for our team it's a roar for nationalism.
Nationalism is a sensitive issue in Europe at the best of times and, perhaps, never more so than now. On the one hand, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc has destabilised the continent, and old conflicts in the region have re-emerged - the same conflicts which led to the First World War and which remain unresolved to this day. On the other hand, the European Union is cementing ever-closer bonds between countries in Western Europe and is now preparing itself to absorb a number of countries from the former Eastern Bloc.
We have passed the point of no return in the European federal experiment - our structures and economies are becoming inextricably linked but we still have deep cultural divisions. The greatest challenge we face is in finding one voice when our languages and perspectives are so varied. How can the myriad of cultures survive the pull of an ever-strengthening centre? Europe is very proud of the multi-cultural diversity which reflects her rich and varied history, and allocates significant budget to cultural programmes. But how inextricably linked is our sense of cultural pride with our sense of national pride? Can one survive without the other?
Against the backdrop of this shift in identity there is a drive towards increasing centralisation of decision-making processes. No longer can we control our economic destiny in Ireland (some might say we never did!), since we entered the Single European Currency. In two years time the trusty old Punt, graced by the likes of James Joyce and Johnathon Swift, will be replaced by the sleek, shiny Euro. Our economy is stronger now than ever before but that's not to say where we'll stand next year, or the year after. If things go pop we won't have the sort of controls independent economies use to manage inflation and spending.
And it doesn't stop there. There is a campaign being waged in Ireland at present which would have us join the NATO Partnership For Peace. Ireland has always been a neutral country, and our neutrality has been as dear to us as hurling (our national game) or our national anthem. We do not have an army but, rather, a Defence Force, and we don't engage in war, we don't have foreign military bases and we don't have nuclear weapons or installations of any type. We are, however, extremely proud of our participation in UN Peacekeeping Missions for many years.
Despite assurances from Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, that we would not join NATO without holding a referendum, his present position is that the Partnership For Peace does not compromise our neutrality, so - no referendum. Given the carry on in the Balkans, the sheer scale of NATO's blundering and arrogance, they have done little to recommend themselves to the Irish electorate. To suggest that these gung-ho militarists, with their nuclear arsenals, could be useful and effective peace keepers has yet to be demonstrated.
The UN may have proven worse than useless in Bosnia but shouldn't we focus on re-structuring and strengthening its effectiveness, rather than transferring the role of world policeman to a military alliance? How can a NATO peace-keeping force have any credibility? The only reason it would be effective is because of the inherent threat that refusal to co-operate could result in aggressive intervention by NATO. Hardly a humane approach to conflict resolution! Given that NATO is the traditional enemy in the Eastern Bloc, their intervention under a peace-keeping guise would be threatening and offensive.
But, back to the game. It only seems like yesterday when Irish sports fans divided on whether Irish players should travel to South Africa on a Lions Rugby Tour. Shirley Bassey was slated for singing in Sun City. Sport and Entertainment Sanctions allow us to make political statements without injuring life. We can assert our right not to associate with unjust or cruel regimes, without actually adding to the misery of their inhabitants. It may not be sufficient in itself, but it wounds the armour of the regime and it galvanises public awareness and opinion. If we can develop a pro-active approach to conflict resolution and revitalise the UN the rest should be taken care of.
Ireland is host to many Kosovan refugees who have endured great hardship at the hands of an unjust regime, exacerbated by the interference of NATO. They have been transplanted into an alien but welcoming environment, free to rebuild their lives here. This is their home and it's only fair that we refuse an invitation to representatives of the regime which drove them here. This gesture says more than bombing missions and land mines. A civilised nation asserts its right not to associate with bullies and undesirables. Now if we could only make a similar gesture to NATO?
Published in Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - June 5, 1999.