Northern Ireland is punching above its weight in the sporting world these days.
Rory McIlroy and Graham McDowell, two of the greatest golfers in the world, played in the Ryder Cup. A team of 81 sportsmen and women in faraway Delhi are striving to win medals in the Commonwealth Games.
We also have an international soccer team and an Ulster rugby team on winning ways at last and the Down GAA team only narrowly lost in the All Ireland final.
Sporting achievement has the ability to inspire and lift people out of the doldrums of everyday life. Yet local sport still has its divisive moments.
This was highlighted recently when the former British and Irish Lion Trevor Ringland challenged the new Ulster Unionist leader to attend a GAA match.
And it is evident when I go to the rugby international at the new Aviva Stadium in Dublin, or attend a soccer international at Windsor Park when the anthems are played.
McIlroy and McDowell were introduced proudly at Celtic Manor as representing Northern Ireland, but for other sportsmen and women from here who make the international stage, the issue of representation can pose a unique dilemma.
I was conscious of that when I was a guest at the recent British Olympic Ball. The build-up to the 2012 London Games is already well underway and the pressure is immense on Team GB, including Northern Ireland, to perform better than it has ever done before. Austerity be damned. All the stops are being pulled out to ensure the Games are a success and all the signs suggest they will be.
As the parade of 50 past British Olympians crossed the stage of the Grosvenor House Hotel, the glitterati of London’s sporting and entertainment world opened their wallets. The post-dinner auction alone raised £200,000.
This unity of purpose, the patriotic pride and passion that was so much in evidence among the 1,100 guests at the British Olympic Ball, is more difficult to replicate here because of divided loyalties.
National anthems and emblems are surely meant to inspire team spirit, but sometimes they can have the opposite effect.
International players can be seen fidgeting uncomfortably from the Aviva Stadium to Windsor Park, struck dumb and embarrassed when the band strikes up A Soldier’s Song or God Save the Queen. While thousands of spectators raise their voices for the anthem and lift the rafters of the grandstand, others in the crowd remain stiffly silent.
Unionists have a problem with gaelic games because they are more than a sport. They are an expression of an exclusively Irish cultural dimension.
We can condemn, but we should try to understand why many unionists cannot enjoy an All Ireland final, or why nationalist soccer fans may look upon Windsor Park on international night as a cold place for them.
Phil Coulter has come closest to recognising the requirement for inclusiveness in Irish sport with his anthem Ireland’s Call, sung as an alternative to, or alongside, the Irish national anthem at international rugby matches. Our Northern Ireland contingent at the Commonwealth Games will unite behind a rendering of Danny Boy if, as we hope, they can celebrate on a medal rostrum in Delhi.
Of the three so-called devolved nations, Scotland and Wales have their own distinctive and acceptable anthems — Flower of Scotland and Land of My Fathers — for international sporting occasions.
Notably, the Welsh sang their own anthem at the opening ceremony of the Ryder Cup last week. Wales’ red and green national flag was raised instead of the Union Jack. The Scottish saltire and Welsh dragon are now more in evidence in these countries than the Union Jack. International sport is not simply about winning for oneself. It is also about winning for one’s country. However, in a society which is both British and Irish, the search for a united patriotic team spirit and for symbols to match is not simple.
As far as sport is concerned, we are not really a united nation, either an all-Ireland nation or a Northern Ireland nation. We are two communities still struggling to come to terms with bridging an immense cultural divide. Like Scotland and Wales, we need more of a common identity to cheer about or win for.
Finding a way through the minefield of divided loyalties, national anthems and emblems is not easy.
If we are truly serious about having a ‘shared future’, then the sporting world, north and south, is the place to start.
Sport has huge potential to unite people, but, sadly, on this island and in this province, it retains the capacity to divide.