Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Whatever flag Rory McIlroy carries we should be proud of him

Question of identity: Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell  should be admired — whatever their allegiance
Question of identity: Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell should be admired — whatever their allegiance

If the BBC's Question of Sport were to have a panel of stars from Northern Ireland, the programme might be more appropriately called Question of Identity.

Even though it's almost four years until the next Olympic Games, Rory McIlroy is already under pressure to declare whether he will carry the tricolour for Ireland or represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Whether Rory carries the Irish flag, or joins the British golfers in Brazil, as he hinted at recently, should be immaterial given the enormous contribution he has made to improve the image of Northern Ireland around the world. We should be proud of him no matter which country he represents.

Some may say that national identity is of no relevance to sporting achievement, yet witness the post-match celebrations of the victorious European Ryder Cup team.

Hardly had the final winning putt been sunk than virtually every player had his national flag wrapped proudly around his shoulders. Someone in Chicago even managed to conjure up a Northern Ireland flag to enshroud McIlroy.

If he wants to opt out of the Irish Olympic squad because he feels British, he should be allowed to do so. Conversely, a talented soccer player, such as James McClean of Sunderland, has chosen to represent the Republic, rather than Northern Ireland.

Of course, they had the benefit of childhood coaching and funding from their respective local sporting bodies, but they are still entitled to a free choice given the unique complexities of life in Northern Ireland. They should not be put under external pressure, nor subjected to criticism.

Reaching the top in sport is exacting enough without such additional angst, yet it has existed down the decades, as I was reminded the other day when visiting the excellent exhibition at the Linenhall Library, celebrating the life and times of Mary Peters.

A west Belfast man who was with me admiring her Munich memorabilia recalled how he felt, as a 15-year-old, growing up in troubled streets. "I have to confess that, when she said she was proud to win for Britain, I hated her," he observed, a view he would not hold today.

Times have changed for the better, but still the outside world struggles to understand our divisions, as I discovered three years ago at the US Masters at Augusta, Georgia.

Rory McIlroy was making his debut and also playing were Graham McDowell and Padraig Harrington. One of the Augusta press officials approached me, as a journalist from Belfast.

He wanted some advice as to which miniature national flag should be placed beside each name on the giant scoreboard.

I recall he was somewhat taken aback when I said I wouldn't dare venture an answer and that he should ensure that the Northern Ireland golfers were asked personally for their preference.

The Good Friday Agreement recognises our twin traditions, British and Irish. The Stormont political system is founded upon it and daily life is increasingly governed by it. Many of us can choose in this society to have a British or Irish passport - or even both.

There are international criteria laid down for each sport as to a player's eligibility, regarding residency and the holding of a passport for the country he or she wishes to represent.

However, transposing the political arrangements into the sporting arena is no simple task. Rory McIlroy will have paid club membership dues in his amateur days to the Golfing Union of Ireland.

His sport, along with rugby, boxing, tennis and many more, is administered on an all-Ireland basis, but the pattern of organisation is far from uniform. For example, the popular school sports of athletics and netball have distinct Northern Ireland governing bodies.

Many governing bodies were in existence before the partition of the island. The old adage "if it works, don't break it" has applied since and there appears to be no great groundswell of opinion for change.

Occasionally, a controversy arises, such as that in the boxing world over allegations made by a club from a loyalist district of south Belfast.

Regrettably, even some of our major sporting icons can be occasional targets of abuse from the most reactionary corners of unionism, or nationalism.

The question of sport in Northern Ireland's divided society does lead sometimes to questions of identity, but it should not inhibit the entire community's respect and admiration for home-grown talent - under whatever flag it appears.

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