Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

How victory, a visit and a vision can prove we have come of age

What do Graeme McDowell and the Queen have in common? Answer: they can help to show the world, in very different ways, that we live in a normal society, that we are a civilised people on this island, friendly, neighbourly, and, in McDowell's case, capable of great sporting achievement.

A state visit by the Queen to Dublin would be not before time. An appropriate recognition of Mc Dowell's victory in the US Open would be the playing of The Open Championship on the links at Royal Portrush sometime in the next decade.

At long last the Dublin Government of Brian Cowan is actively considering the first visit by a British monarch in a hundred years.

It is a shameful reflection on the Irish, as well as the British, that such an occasion could not take place before now, especially when we look at the seismic change in the political atmosphere on this island since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

There is no blacker mark on the Republic, no greater sign of political immaturity than its failure, to date, to afford the common courtesy of welcoming the head of state of its nearest neighbour.

And there would be no greater evidence of the Republic's coming of age as a small, confident nation in the European community than when the Queen is warmly welcomed in Dublin.

We cannot go on forever allowing a band of renegade republicans to dictate Anglo-Irish relations in the 21st century. We are not living in 1912, 1916 or 1969.

So much has changed. Can a few remaining diehards hold the island hostage to an event which would surely seal a new Anglo-Irish relationship as nothing else could?

Can anyone doubt the immensity of the impact a welcome for the Queen in Dublin would have on Northern Ireland?

How better to deliver a message of mutual respect for British and Irish traditions than the sight of Queen Elizabeth, the figurehead of one tradition, shaking hands with President McAleese, the symbol of the other.

Many chapters in our fractured history would be truly closed by the symbolism of such a momentous meeting on Irish soil.

Graeme McDowell's feat of winning the US Open at Pebble Beach will have lasting benefits to Northern Ireland. He symbolises in his success, and in his north Antrim roots, so much of what is good about this province. I sat up until the early hours to watch him win.

What impressed most was his confidence and determination and his unswerving nerve over the final holes. I felt he won because he brought to his game on the windswept shores of California all his youthful years of unique experience on the exposed Causeway Coast of Ulster. None of his opponents could match him in that regard.

I recall having the pleasure of watching McDowell and Rory McIlroy at Augusta last year and reflecting on what wonderful ambassadors they were around the world. How proud in their presence at Augusta were we to say we came from Northern Ireland.

McDowell said that, in contrast to McIlroy, he didn't mind being "below the radar" with the media. Now he has proved to the sporting world that his modesty belied and concealed an incredible sporting talent.

His magnificent victory underpins the value of sport and golf in particular to Northern Ireland's international image and tourist potential. This is an opportunity not to be lost.

I doubt if there is anywhere as small as Northern Ireland which can boast such an array of world-beating golfers and we must capitalise on that recognition.

Graham McDowell left these shores to play his golf at the University of Alabama. That in itself makes me pose the question: what are our universities here doing to attract potential champions of the future to study and play here on local courses which are rated amongst the top 10 in the world?

Why can this island not become as popular an attraction to young and aspiring golfers from around the world as Alabama proved to be for McDowell? Why ever not, given the talent and facilities we have on offer, north and south?

The Open Championship, which will take place this year at St Andrew's in July, was last played in Northern Ireland in 1951 at Royal Portrush. We should be planning now, in honour of Graeme McDowell, to return The Open to Portrush before the year 2020.

The Queen in Dublin in 2011? The most famous golf championship in the world at Royal Portrush before 2020? That's real normality. That's a statement to the world that Ireland, north and south, has truly come of age.

It can be done, but only if those in charge in Dublin and Belfast are up to the challenge and have the vision.

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