By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland will consider launching a bid for the 2023 rugby World Cup this week, the country's sports minister said on Monday, hoping a politically-symbolic proposal will win it the right to host the event for the first time.
The ambitious effort would see games played on both sides of the Irish border as unlike soccer, the national team is an all-Ireland selection, and would represent another major step since a 1998 peace agreement mostly ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Ireland has been mulling the idea for over a year, looking to replicate the successful hosting by similarly populated New Zealand in 2011, and minister Leo Varadkar said he will seek approval from cabinet colleagues on Tuesday.
"It's probably the biggest event a country like Ireland could do, we're too small for the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup and for that reason it would engender enormous national pride," Varadkar told an International Rugby Board conference.
"The second thing is that even during the very difficult times of the Troubles, rugby in Ireland was a unifying sport. For us in Ireland, it would just be a symbol of how far we've come from the bad times to the better times now."
South Africa, hosts of the hugely symbolic 1995 rugby World Cup and 2010 soccer World Cup, have also indicated that they plan to make a bid. France, hosts as recently as 2007, have also expressed an interest in the 2023 edition.
Dublin has been working with the Northern Ireland executive on the proposal and also has the backing of Ireland's Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), meaning it can use stadiums like the 82,300-capacity Croke Park.
Alongside Croke Park, there are another 10 Gaelic grounds as big or bigger than the second-largest rugby stadium in the country, Munster's Thomond Park, although many will need major renovation to stage an international tournament.
The GAA, governing body for Ireland's unique sports hurling and Gaelic football, had to ask its members earlier this year to allow the stadiums to be opened up to other sports which it had previously done eight years ago.
In 2005 the GAA changed its rules to permit rugby and soccer to be played at Croke Park while the old Lansdowne Road was being upgraded.
The vote was a landmark decision as Croke Park, the national stadium for Gaelic football and hurling, was the venue for the original "Bloody Sunday" in 1920 when British troops killed 14 people during Ireland's War of Independence.
Until 1971 the GAA banned members from playing or attending so-called "foreign games" like rugby and the politically-charged Six Nations game against England in Croke Park in 2007 marked a significant moment in British-Irish relations.
Varadkar said it could potentially boost the ailing economy by as much as 800 million euros ($1.1 billion) with hundreds of thousands of fans coming to the country, according to a report prepared for government by consultancy firm Deloitte & Touche.
The World Cup will be hosted by England in 2015 and then Japan in 2019, the first time the tournament will be staged outside either Europe or the southern hemisphere powerhouses of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
"We see this is as having great potential for Ireland as an island and for the sport itself," said Irish Rugby Football Union Chief Executive Philip Browne, who has been working on the bid since 2011 alongside the two governments.
(Editing by Conor Humphries)