Bridging Divides Through Rugby

Bloodshed, animosity and tragedy can describe the recent history between the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.  From the 1960’s until the mid 90’s, Belfast was a war-zone—terrorists roamed the streets and civilians feared for their safety. Today, the tension between Protestants and Catholics is still palpable, fortunately without much of the violence. Amid this tenuous relationship between the two groups, both sects from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland join forces under one name, and for one thing—rugby. All proudly take the international rugby field to play under the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU).  For Ireland and many others, rugby is bigger than just a sport.

Before an IRFU international match, the Irish national anthem is not played over the loudspeaker.  Nor is the Northern Ireland national anthem blared. What is played is a team anthem unique to the IRFU, “Ireland’s Call.” Individuals on the team and in the crowd are often offended and commonly irate when one country’s National anthem is played over the other, but all unite around the IRFU anthem. From the outset, the sport’s tremendous power is real.

IRFU players come from all over Ireland and Northern Ireland—Belfast, Dublin and Limerick to name a few. People from cities that were in a vicious conflict over religion and heritage just 20 years ago play together in a sport where teamwork, respect and trust are vital to success. Not only does the team consist of players from Northern Ireland and The Republic and play as a team, but they also are successful. Most recently, in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the IRFU advanced to the quarterfinal round only to be knocked out by Wales.

Sport has the power to bridge social divides and to heal wounds, as exemplified with the Irish Rugby Football Union. Sport can also be used to teach skills—empathy, respect, teamwork, perspective—needed to change the way people view each other. Sport can and should be used as a vehicle for change.

Skills for Sport. Skills for Life.

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