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Ireland is addressing its own issue of Confederate flags being displayed by sports fans

The Confederate battle flag is shown flying in South Carolina in 2015. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag from its events, and now Cork is doing the same. That would be Ireland’s County Cork, home of the “Rebels,” where for several decades the flag has been adopted by some fans as a rallying symbol at games.

The use of the flag by Cork fans previously gained major scrutiny in Ireland in 2017, after a woman was killed while protesting a rally of white supremacists and nationalists in Charlottesville.

On Friday, Cork County Board chairwoman Tracey Kennedy told the Irish Times: “As far as I’m concerned, the Confederate flag is banned. … I’m happy to make that position explicit and say it’s banned from our grounds. It has no place in our grounds or in supporting Cork teams. We’re a community association and every part of the community is welcome in the [Gaelic Athletic Association].”

Kennedy referred to comments by a predecessor, Ger Lane, who asked in 2017 that people flying the Confederate flag at Cork matches “refrain” from doing so in the future.

Noting at the time that the flag was flown by Cork fans at a major hurling match staged that year in Dublin, Lane said, “There is one flag for Cork supporters — the red and white flag with the Cork emblem on it."

“Ger’s statement in 2017 was very clear when he asked our supporters not to bring the flag to our grounds, not to use the flag,” Kennedy said Friday. “So as far as I’m concerned, it is banned.”

Reports are inconclusive on the degree to which Cork fans have waved the flag since, if at all. They have not had any chance to do so at GAA events — the organization oversees Ireland’s major native sports, Gaelic football and hurling — since March, when sports leagues around the world were largely shut down amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Kennedy told the Irish Times that her understanding was that displays of the Confederate flag have become rare and she was not aware of a recent instance of it. A representative of the GAA could not be immediately reached for comment.

A member of the Cork City Council, Mick Finn, told The Washington Post on Friday via email that after the “call was made” to Cork supporters in 2017 not to wave the flag, it “has been largely heeded.” He added, “So I would say the fans do not use this flag any more.”

Finn had said in 2017 that “maybe people’s sensibilities and sensitivities are aroused at the moment about what is going on in the United States, but I honestly think the flag being flown by Cork supporters is not a political statement and is being done in support of their team, and should be seen just as that.”

He reiterated that stance Friday, noting Cork’s colors in GAA matches and that the Confederate flag has been just one used by fans that is not specifically related to the region. “Japanese and Norwegian flags” are also flown at games, Finn said, “principally because they contain red.”

“I pointed out at the time that I didn’t believe they were flown to make any statement,” Finn said of his 2017 comments. “They were simply red and used in a sports environment.”

Others have pointed out that the “Rising Sun” Japanese flag seen at Cork matches is also offensive to many, particularly in China and Korea, because it became a symbol of brutal oppression after it began to be used by the Imperial Japanese Navy in the late 1800s.

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Gary Murphy, a professor of politics at Dublin City University who wrote an opinion piece in 2017 headlined “Why Cork fans must abandon this toxic flag,” said Friday in an email that he was “sure that the majority of Cork fans who carried a Confederate flag to big games over the years were in no way racist.”

“Cork is known as the rebel county and most fans would have associated the flag with the idea of rebels and of course it is principally red which is the main point,” wrote Murphy, a longtime supporter of Cork hurling. “What I was trying to do in that article was point out that flags have meanings and in the then climate and also now it has no place being flown by any Cork supporter or any sports supporter full stop.”

Cork’s association with the “Rebels” nickname dates, by some accounts, from the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, when a pretender to England’s throne managed to rally support in the county, located in the south of Ireland, for an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Henry VII. Other episodes that bolstered the “Rebel County” reputation occurred in 1601, when the Battle of Kinsale helped England consolidate its grip on Ireland, and in the early 1900s during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War.

Given its strong connections to the South, NASCAR took something of a gamble on possibly alienating a portion of its fan base when it announced Wednesday it is banning all displays of the Confederate flag at its events and properties.

“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” the company said in a statement. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special.”

NASCAR’s decision came after Bubba Wallace, the only black driver on NASCAR’s top-flight Cup Series, called for a ban. He subsequently drove a car in a race Wednesday that was emblazoned with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

In the wake of the killing May 25 of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis, protests against racial injustice and police brutality have erupted across the United States. Other countries have also seen demonstrations, including Ireland, where Black Lives Matter marches have been staged in Dublin and in Cork.

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Claiming that Ireland has been “very homogeneously white” since gaining its independence in 1922, Murphy said, “It is only in the last two decades that there has been any significant influx of migrants,” who he said have come mainly from Eastern Europe and Africa. In terms of racial issues, “the general climate has changed quite considerably here,” the professor told The Post.

“For the most part assimilation of immigrants has been very successful,” he wrote. “There is for instance no right-wing, nativist, anti-immigrant party in Ireland.”

However, Murphy also noted, “The papers here have been full of stories of young black Irish athletes speaking out against the racism they have suffered on the playing fields.”

On Thursday, the GAA issued a lengthy statement in which it declared itself “anti-sectarian, anti-racist, and committed to the principles of inclusion and diversity at all levels.”

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“Any conduct by deed, word, or gesture of sectarian or racist nature or which is contrary to the principles of inclusion and diversity against a player, official, spectator or anyone else, in the course of activities organised by the Association, shall be deemed to have discredited the Association,” the Irish sports body stated.

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