England vs Ireland

Irish or English: the case of footballer Declan Rice

12 minutes to read
Article
Ot van de Rijzen
05/03/2021

On February 13th, 2019, football player Declan Rice publicly announced on his Instagram page (@declanrice) that he would be changing his international allegiance from the Republic of Ireland to England. This sparked enormous controversy, both in traditional media and on social media. But why?

Declan Rice: A short but strong career

Declan Rice was born on January 14th, 1999, in London, England. He spent his entire life in the city and is therefore eligible for English citizenship. However, his paternal grandparents were from Cork, Ireland, thus qualifying him for Irish citizenship as well. 

Rice played football for the Republic of Ireland’s youth teams in the Under 16’s and Under 21’s from 2015 to 2018. Along the way, he received the Player of the Year award for the Under 17’s in 2017 and for the Under 19’s in 2018, as well as the Young Irish Player of the Year that same year. It’s thus safe to say that he was regarded as one of the best young players the Republic of Ireland had to offer (Wikipedia).

This resulted in a call up for the senior national team in 2018. That year Rice played three friendly matches for the Republic of Ireland. However, on August 27th he was left out of the squad for a competitive match against Wales. According to the Republic of Ireland coach O’Neill, Rice had been approached by England, and declined his call up for the Irish to think about this. FIFA regulations state that a player can change their international registration as long as they have not played in an official competitive game for a nation. 

This is exactly what Rice did at the start of 2019. He opted for England, and at the time of writing, Rice had amassed 13 caps for England since making his debut in March 2019, at the age of 22 (English Football Association).

Sky Sports: The Debate

Figure 1: The Debate

Following his omission from the Republic of Ireland squad, Sky Sports discussed the topic is a segment called “The Debate”. In it, the Sky presenter spoke with ex-West Ham player Jack Collison, former Scotland national team manager Gordon Strachan, and former football player Clinton Morrison.

There are several interesting factors connected to this piece of discourse. First of all, the name of the segment: “The Debate”. In English there are a plethora of words to describe different kinds of talking and interactions: discussion, conversation and chat. Each of these has its own unique connotation - a chat tends to be more lighthearted, whereas a debate can get quite heated. Calling something a debate indicates that opinions are divided, and people will try to discuss it and convince people of their point of view (Cameron, 2001, p.8).

That label rang true, as there were two main points of view discussed in the segment. Chosing your national team is not a decision made lightly. It touches upon the heart of your identity, at least in a nationalistic paradigm. 'The debate' is thus over how this national identity is constructed. Former Scotland manager Strachan put great emphasis on asking yourself as a player, “how do you feel?” To him, this choice is about feeling either Irish or Scottish. Morrison agrees with him, saying that when he first played for Ireland, he really felt it. According to him, once you decide to play at senior level for your country, that is it. They frame national team choice as rooted in one's national identity and how a person feels about his belonging. One cannot feel both Irish ánd English by this reasoning.

Collison took a more nuanced approach. He highlighted how big of a decision it is, and that he hopes Rice chooses based on his own thoughts and feelings. He called Rice a “down to earth lad”, and remarked that he was truly proud to make his own Republic of Ireland debut. Collison is backed up by Seamus Coleman, captain of the Irish team. In a fragment of an interview shown in the segment, Coleman mentions that "[He] was genuinely proud to play for Ireland," and that "It’s not as straightforward as 'you know what you are.'"

The main discourse was split between these two camps: those who say Rice's nationality choice should be an intuitive 'feeling', and those who understand his struggle and take a more nuanced approach, recognizing that nationalities aren't clear cut.

The three guests are there because Sky has asked them to be - the channel thinks they can add something to the discussion on this particular topic. Each adds a different angle: Collison knows Rice personally, Strachan is a former national team coach, and Morrison also had to choose a national team. In other words, they are ‘experts’ on those topics.

As Cameron (2001) mentions in her discussion of Foucault, experts have the authority to give definitions, and their words have power. That is why Sky opted to invite these experts, rather than just polling public opinion on the issue. Although these experts speak solely for themselves, each of them is representive of a social group. They thus have a duty to properly represent these social groups, as they also contribute to shaping public opinion.

Nationalism and Deviance

What does it mean to be Irish, English, or any nationality? Nationality is a social construct. Emerging from historical circumstance, its importance has increased over the centuries, and is now considered to be a part of someone’s identity. “Where are you from?” is one of the first things you ask when meeting someone new. It is part of everyday life.

This is where Michael Billig's (1995) concept of banal nationalism comes in. He argues that regular nationalism is only applicable when talking about world politics on a grand scale. However, even outside of conflict, countries such as the United States and France still exist as states and nations (Billig, 1995).

People are reminded that they are part of nations everyday, for example by national flags hanging outside government buildings or inside schools. Billig goes on to say that “having a national identity also involves being situated physically, legally, socially, as well as emotionally” (1995, p.8). This situatedness is a result of nationalism, or in other words, of the constant discursive framing of the nation and its citizens. The nation is flagged daily in educational books, the news, the weather report, and, of course, in sports competitions. Today, as a result of digitalization and the hybrid media system, we see that 'common men and women' also construct nationhood and national identity. 

YouTube Comments

Irish football fans felt betrayed by Rice and voiced that opinion loudly across social media. We will take a look at a post-match interview with Rice in 2018, where such voicing of opinion is very prevalent.

Posted on the YouTube channel Off The Ball on June 3rd, the video shows an interview with Rice after playing for the Republic of Ireland in a match againstthe USA. He’s asked about comments made by the then West Ham United manager Manuel Pellegrini, who said he would try to make Rice into an English international. In the interview, Rice claims to be focused on the Republic of Ireland at that moment in time. Of course, as we now know, he would later switch to England.

The comments under the video show Irish fans' discontent with the situation. Figures 2 and 3 show screenshots of the comment section underneath the video, taken on December 3rd, 2020. There are two prevalent criticisms present in these comments: first, that Rice is not Irish anymore, or never was. This argument focuses on two things, namely nationalism and deviance. Second, people call out Rice for being a ‘snake’.

Rice has lived his entire life in England. Physically and legally he is situated as English, with a majority of his social situation also being English. Yet, in his statements on social media, Rice says he considers himself to be “of mixed nationality”: proud to be an Englishman while also being equally proud of his Irish roots. Thus he emotionally regards himself as Irish - through his familial ties he feels connected to the Republic of Ireland.

The commenters and most Irish fans, however, see things differently. For them, being English excludes being Irish, and being Irish involves staying loyal to the nation and its football team. The football team is part of their everyday lives. Since Rice been disloyal, they no longer consider him Irish.

Figure 2: Comment section interview

This is best illustrated in the comment from “Tuggernaut Express” (Figure 2). His comment consists of three lines, in italics and with music notes in front of them, indicating a short song, saying that Declan Rice is not Irish anymore.

It’s interesting to note that before he was omitted from the squad in August, Rice was considered an Irishman by his Republic of Ireland teammates and Irish fans. In the space of just half a year he went from hero to villain in the eyes of fans. Let’s take a look at how Rice made himself an outsider, with help of the similarly titled book by Howard S. Becker (1963).

According to Becker, someone becomes an outsider when they break a rule. Now, Rice did not break any laws. He acted well within FIFA regulations. By the standards of a football player, he acted properly. Be that as it may, he did break a different kind of rule, namely the rules of a social group. He broke Irish fans' rule of loyalty.

We have seen how Rice and the fans have different ideas about what it means to be Irish. By not sticking to their ideal, he became an outsider, a deviant who broke the rules of the social group. This is why many fans consider him not to be Irish anymore, just as the lovely song by “Tuggernaut Express” indicates. 

Figure 3: Comment section interview

Now let’s look at the comment by “Shaun Bonner” (Figure 3). He says that “By listening to this snake you'd think he had the same commitment to the Irish Jersey as proper Irish men such as Coleman mcclean.” We are going to assume that he means Seamus Coleman and James McClean. It makes sense that this commenter sees these two players as examples of "proper Irishmen.” Coleman, the current team captain, has 56 caps to his name and McClean 72 caps at the time of writing.

They are experienced players who have stayed loyal to the Irish football team, and therefore fit within the banal nationalistic rules of the Irish fans' social group. Coleman's public defense of Rice was apparently was not enough for this commenter.  

Snakes and history

Figure 3 shows several comments filled with green snake emojis. A snake is someone who is two faced. In this context that means that they dislike him for pretending to be an Irishman, only for him to then later show his other side and declare himself an Englishman. 

This view of Rice’s nationality switch as betrayal might be rooted in the history of the two countries. England invaded and conquered Ireland in the Middle Ages and ruled over the country for centuries, with intermittent violent conflict persisting through the 1990s. This understandably has led to the Irish seeing the English as their former oppressors. In terms of footballing history, the English national team is considerably more decorated and has consistantly performed at a higher level than their Irish counterparts, which also might put some extra salt in the figurative wounds of Irish supporters.

So in the eyes of the Irish fans, Declan Rice has not only constructed himself as an outsider to the Irish nation. He has also joined the biggest oppressor in Irish history. Of course, nowadays the Republic of Ireland is an independent country. But the scars of such events run deep, and make this “betrayal”, by one of the brightest footballing prospects their country had seen in years, all the more painful.

This is Declan Rice

Declan Rice is, was, and will be a lot of things. He was a bright footballing prospect in his youth. He was a Republic of Ireland international, and is now an England international. He was, is, and will be a player frequently seen or discussed in traditional media. Some are of the opinion he is a ‘snake’. Others will say he was just confused. He himself says he is of mixed nationality. He is an outsider and a deviant for Irish football fans. Maybe above all of this, he is two more things: a world class football player, and, at the end of the day, just a human being.

References

Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. The Free Press.

Billig, M. (1995). Banal nationalism. sage.

Cameron, D. (2001). Working with spoken discourse. Sage.

declanrice, Instagram. Accessed 29-11-2020

English Football Association. (2020). England Player Profile: Declan Rice.  Accessed 1-12-2020

Rosser, J. (2018, 27 august). West Ham’s Declan Rice left out of Ireland squad as he considers England approach. Evening Standard. Accessed 1-12-2020

Sky Sports Football. (2018, 6 september). How should footballers choose which country to represent? | The Debate. YouTube. Accessed 3-12-2020

Off The Ball. (2018, 3 juni). Declan Rice focused on Ireland. YouTube. Accessed 3-12-2020

Premier League. (2020, 27 januari). Declan Rice on his FIRST EVER FIFA rating! | Uncut | AD. YouTube. Accessed 4-12-2020

The FAI. (2021). Player Profile Seamus Coleman Accessed 18-01-2021

The FAI. (2021). Player Profile James McClean Accessed 18-01-2021

Wikipedia contributors. Declan Rice. Wikipedia. Accessed 29-11-2020