Shoulder to Shoulder

John Buttimer reviews Shoulder to Shoulder, a documentary proving that despite the political climate, sport can unite a nation.

‘Hard border,’ ‘soft border,’ a ‘United Ireland’ – these are words that are becoming unavoidable in our day to day lives as Theresa May’s Brexit plans splutter towards completion. Northern Ireland, which was once likened to the Sudetenland by Margaret Thatcher, is arguably one of the most complex and misunderstood places on this planet. Home to nearly two million people, Northern Ireland has historically been conflict ridden, with the infamous ‘Troubles’ claiming more than 3,600 lives between 1969 and 1998. In his documentary Shoulder to Shoulder, which aired in October 2018 on BT Sport, former Irish rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll looks at the history behind the Irish rugby team playing as one island while also giving the viewer an insight into the complicated and contrasting opinions of those that call the North their home.

O’Driscoll, like myself and many people who were born in the Republic of Ireland during the Troubles, was raised a Catholic. He is honest in his declaration that his knowledge of the North is limited and plays his part well. He asks simple questions allowing the interviewees to tell the story in greater detail. The notion of a 32 county Republic is an idealistic and romantic one that people in the Republic often talk about flippantly as if it could happen overnight. The idea that one morning the Queen and the English government will politely hand back the occupied counties and we’ll all live happily ever after is naive at best and in reality, is disrespectful to those on both sides of the divide in NI.

The fact of the matter is that many of the people in the North want to remain as part of the U.K. The idea of identifying as British is overt as O’Driscoll attends an Orange Order 12th of July parade commemorating the Battle of the Boyne. In this attempt to attain an understanding of  where these men and women pledge their allegiances, O’Driscoll is met by admiring fans, some of whom admitted to simultaneously feeling Irish, Northern Irish and British . Admittedly this is hard to comprehend for someone who has only ever felt Irish but the complexities of life in Northern Ireland will always remain unique to those who have lived it.

While there are a plethora of things that divide the inhabitants of the North, the Irish rugby team is one of the only things that unites both Catholics and Protestants alike. During the 1980s men whose backgrounds were steeped in nationalism battled alongside men who were serving in the British army and employed by the infamous RUC. When asked how this ever worked or continues to work the players’ responses all mirrored one another: ‘we trusted and respected our teammates regardless of their political standpoint.’ The unity and togetherness we see in Irish rugby is unfortunately not evident in football. As recently as November 2018 the two sides faced off in Dublin for a ‘friendly’ where the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ was roundly booed by the home crowd while the away section sang songs about Britain. This animosity that’s unavoidable between the football teams is not something that O’Driscoll touches on but it begs the question: is having two teams actually more divisive? Or could it possibly work the way rugby does?

Whichever way you choose to answer those questions, the likelihood is that both the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland supporters cheered for the  Irish rugby team three days later as they defeated the All Blacks. This is what O’Driscoll wishes to highlight: the unique nature the Irish rugby team possesses despite the religious and political divisions on our island.

In terms of entertainment value I would highly recommend this documentary to all. Whether you are interested in sport or not is irrelevant as the viewer is afforded a multitude of information given by those on both sides of the divide who lived through the darkest days in the history of Northern Ireland. Brian O’Driscoll acts as an impressive host. He is not forceful in his opinion and remains objective throughout.