Lorcan Nyhan: Tribal reaction to CJ's departure reveals 'us' and 'them' mentality

23rd Mar 2021
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Originally published in the Sunday Independent

“Human beings are tribal – it’s how we’re built.

That leads to a proven ‘Us v Them’ effect in psychology. Humans create groupings at a rapid pace. The ‘us’ is comforting, internal, virtuous. The ‘them’ is threatening, external, lesser.

Studies show children as young as three already group people like this – toddlers want to share more with those they deem as ‘us’ and find faces of those they deem as ‘them’ more threatening.

This tendency to construct an ‘us’ creates mixed results.

The good? Tidy Towns. The GAA. Choirs. All sport really – it’s why we can identify strongly with a nation, a province, a county, a club – sometimes all at the same time.

The bad? Racism, war and acts of national self-sabotage.”

“To them, Stander’s decision to return to his home town marks him as a mercenary whose professed commitment to the Irish jersey has been exposed as disingenuous.

A reaction that echoes previous statements that players such as Stander and New Zealand-born Bundee Aki are only ‘blow-ins’ – less deserving of an Irish cap than those who happen to have been born here, or indeed, born to parents originally from Ireland. Last year, English-born Mike Haley, who qualifies through his maternal grandmother, made his Irish debut – to little backlash. To have a problem with the residency route, but not with the ‘granny rule’ alternative, is revealing. Both are equally valid.

To go further back, Dion O’Cuinneagain captained Ireland at the 1999 rugby world cup.

Born and raised in South Africa, he captained their sevens team – before moving to Belfast, via Sale, and spending a total of three years in Ireland before retiring to Cape Town.

Does his Irish surname and father trump Stander living here three times longer? Or are both valid versions of an Irish connection?”

“That policy was developed to protect the IRFU’s assets, but its unintended consequence is a national team which is different to the traditional version – one that highlights our resident community rather than our international diaspora – but it’s no less valid because of that.

So, yes, this is wider than just sport.”

“How we define what it means to be Irish is going to become more relevant in the coming decade – the prospect of a referendum on Irish unity alone is going to bring complex questions on how we define ourselves.

CJ Stander will return to South Africa soon.

For the last nine years, he was part of our collective community. Impacted by the same laws, accessing the same services, and providing huge value in return.

He’s as much ‘us’ as anybody on this island.

We need to progress and acknowledge that national pride is only a force for good if everyone involved in our communities feels free to feel it.

Our national tribe should include our entire nation, equally.”