The new England midfielder Declan Rice issued a statement apologising for historic posts on Instagram that appeared to be supportive of the IRA, the latest high-profile sportsman to fall victim to his social media being trawled for long-forgotten errors of judgment.
The unprompted posts by Rice, which included the phrase “UP THE RA”, a reference to the IRA, were understood to have been found by a member of the public scrutinising his account, including replies, under the verified handle @_deccers10. They were brought to the attention of the Irish media and even before Gareth Southgate had begun his pre-match press conference for tonight’s Euro 2020 qualifier against the Czech Republic, the player had issued a statement to apologise.
The posts were made in 2015 when Rice, now 20, was 16. He played for the junior Republic of Ireland teams at Under-16, Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 level and was capped three times by the senior team before switching allegiance this year.
Currently in his first squad with the England senior team, there has been considerable unhappiness in Ireland at his change of heart. One of the three posts including the “UP THE RA” phrase prefaced the line “Wait till we draw England”. The Republic of Ireland Under-17s did play England at the European championships in May that year, losing 1-0 in a group game, although Rice was not in the squad.
The West Ham midfielder issued a statement on the same Instagram account apologising for “any offence caused” and denying that his use of “UP THE RA” had been intended to have any political connotations. He said: “I was aware that a poorly-expressed comment I made when I was a junior player has been circulated on social media. I recognise now that my attempt to show support for my team-mates at the time could be negatively interpreted.
“While my naive words were not meant to be political opinion and do not represent who I am, I sincerely apologise for any offence caused.”
When Rice switched his official Fifa nationality to England last month he discussed his “mixed nationality” and his pride that was “100 per cent genuine” at having represented Ireland.
He is a contender to win his first cap against the Czech Republic, although Southgate is most likely to start with a defensive midfield pairing of Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier.
The England manager said Rice was right to apologise and that his use of the “UP THE RA” phrase – with its clear political connotations – “was not representative of what he believes and feels, and his views”.
Southgate said: “Outside of that, the obvious point is that this was when he was 15 or 16 when he was engaged in a social conversation with friends.
“I think any of us at that age, in those sorts of situations have probably said things, discussed things, written things, that might not look the way that’d we’d want [them to] several years later. So I don’t think he can say or do any more than he’s said at this point in time.”
Southgate said that the FA speaks to young players about their social media posts but conceded that “once you’re in that system then a lot of the historic stuff is there”.
Asked whether players should purge their accounts of potentially ill-judged comments, Southgate said that it was almost impossible given the volume of social media that had accrued over a young life.
“I don’t know how far back players would look. That is the perils of social media for any of us with kids. You just don’t know what that interaction might be.
“When they’re socialising with friends, you’re a bit braver in some of your comments or a bit less thoughtful in some of your comments, so I think for all young people that is a danger. There are so many positive things about social media, but, as we know, there are lots of negatives.”
Southgate said he believed that England fans would understand and forgive Rice, should they have felt offended. “I think people will recognise their own experiences at 15, 16 and that they’re not mature [at that age].
“We’ve got some 19 and 20-year-olds. They’re not the finished person. None of us are, but you know, you’ve got a lot more to learn about life at those ages than you have when you get to our age, or my age.”
The FA has pushed hard for certain sections of England’s support to stop singing anti-IRA songs, including the adaptation of the national anthem to include “No Surrender”.
Southgate said: “Our message doesn’t change and I think Declan’s statement is consistent with that, so we still would be against any of our supporters taking up that sort of stance and I don’t think anything changes from an FA or England point of view.”