Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 25 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Boxers like Paddy Barnes and Steven Ward could teach politicians so much

Politicians could learn so much from the unity of purpose and noble spirit of our amateur fighters, role models down the years who we should all be extremely proud of, writes Henry McDonald.

Cliftonville fan Paddy Barnes and Rangers devotee Steven Ward show their colours during the opening ceremony of the Games at Celtic Park
Cliftonville fan Paddy Barnes and Rangers devotee Steven Ward show their colours during the opening ceremony of the Games at Celtic Park
Northern Ireland's Michaela Walsh (red) celebrates her win against Mauritius' Thessa Dumas in the women's fly
The Queen officially opens the event in Glasgow

Someone should have told the Daily Mail picture caption writer that the badge Belfast boxer Paddy Barnes flashed at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony was not the Glasgow Celtic emblem.

In fact, it actually represented a club even older than Celtic and in a different league altogether – Barnes' and this writer's beloved Cliftonville FC.

Despite the error, nonetheless, the image still encapsulated much of what is great about this sporting tournament. The double selfie of two boxers on the hallowed turf of Celtic Park, one of them demonstrating his love for the Irish League champions and the other, Steven Ward, proudly displaying his Rangers away top under his shirt and tie. Here, after all, were two universally admired young boxers from different backgrounds working together to bring medals back to Northern Ireland in the Glasgow 2014 Games.

It is hardly surprising that two of our boxers at these Games personify the original Olympian and Corinthian ideals of sport. In contrast to the "They-gotta-Ferrari-and-they don't-care" attitude of so many overpaid, overhyped Premiership footballers or the deeply corrupt world governing body of soccer, Fifa, amateur sportsmen and women like Barnes, Ward and hundreds of others competing in Glasgow represent a real sporting ideal youngsters should look up to.

And to my mind it is boxers, especially those who trained in famous Belfast clubs like Holy Family or Albert Foundry, who have always been role models to look up to. Looking back on a childhood brought up in a tough inner city area, one striking thing to recall is how the boys that took up boxing usually were the very last ones to start fights or bully others. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Due to their daily training regimes and personal discipline (mental as well as physical) most boxers reserved their aggression and their prowess for fighting solely in the ring. They also, down through the years, have demonstrated another interesting social trait: their ability to be relaxed and fluid about which nation on this island they represent between the ropes.

Many of our best fighters through the decades have come from nationalist and republican areas, cheer on the Republic of Ireland in world football and would probably support Celtic in any Old Firm derby. Yet legions of them have proudly worn the Northern Ireland vest and stood under the Red Hand of Ulster flag as they step up to the medal winners' podium.

Conversely, some of Belfast's boxing greats like Wayne McCullough have forged long-term friendships with fighters from south of the border. Think of McCullough and his old partner in the Irish Olympic boxing team, Michael Carruth. McCullough was Shankill Road born and bred while Carruth was a Dublin born Irish army soldier. At the Seoul Olympics of 1988 McCullough even carried the tricolour. The pair won gold and silver medals at the Barcelona games four years later. During the last summer Olympics two years ago, one of the most deeply moving moments of the build-up to the London Games was to witness these two old friends come together once again, with McCullough handing over the Olympic torch to Carruth along the border. At the scene Carruth described the experience as "beautiful", adding that "it was a moment Wayne and I will treasure forever".

The contrast at this touching, sincere little ceremony along the border to 20 years earlier was incredible, especially given the controversy over McCullough's suggestion that Belfast City Council should not only honour his achievements at Barcelona 1992 but also those of his great friend Carruth. Some unionists in City Hall disgraced themselves by stating their opposition to honouring Carruth alongside his fellow competitor because he happened to be from the Republic and was a serving soldier in the Irish Defence Forces.

Such ungracious attitudes to sportsmen and women are now hopefully a thing of the past. In these more relaxed times, when hardly anyone except republican diehards, bats an eyelid when the Queen comes to call and strolls around Crumlin Road Gaol with Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson, representing the Republic or Northern Ireland in most sports is no longer controversial. The welcome absence of any political furore relating to Ulster boxers all under the Northern Ireland flag at Glasgow 2014 is proof of that.

Which is why no one in politics should seek to raise any row over Rory Mcllroy's decision to represent Ireland at the next Olympic games. Because none of his devoted fans on either side of the divide care less that McIlroy will march behind the tricolour into the Maracana stadium in Rio two years from now.

The public are relaxed about this because McIlroy, just like McCullough and Carruth or Barnes and Ward, still belong to everyone in the community, whichever colours he happens to be following at the opening of the games in Brazil.

Of course, such relaxed fluidity about which national "side" to compete for does not apply to all sports, particularly football. Nor, due to both governing associations being all-Ireland bodies, is hockey or rugby represented at Glasgow 2012.

One way around this, at least for the next games, would be for the Republic to consider rejoining the Commonwealth. It may be unrealistic in the short to medium term to envisage a united Irish soccer team given the separate histories and traditions of the game since the tragic split in football in the early 1920s. But one compromise would be a united team coming together exclusively for the Commonwealth Games, if of course soccer were to be played in the future.

Such a scenario in such an important year like 2016 would require a major political shift in attitudes south of the border. Yet it is one that is no longer so unthinkable anymore after the Queen's nod towards the Irish patriot dead in Dublin's Garden of Remembrance or Michael D Higgins' bow of respect at Lord Mountbatten's memorial inside Westminster Abbey, or the handshakes between the head of the British Armed Forces and the former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. And the Queen at Celtic Park, where they used to sing unflattering songs about her from the old terracing, was almost as historic as Her Majesty honouring Ireland's patriot dead!

Regardless of what arrangements politicians on this island come to, the one thing we can be certain of in the long-term is that boxers as well as other athletes from either side of the tribal fence will continue to criss-cross historic and increasingly blurred barricades in global sporting tournaments.

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