Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

We are like teenagers, ready to take offence at any slight

Wendy Houvenaghel who missed out on a gold medal after being left out of Great Britain's team pursuit team in the 2012 London Olympic games.

I don't have a patriotic bone in my body. Not in the cheering and flag-waving sense anyway.

That's why you won't catch me choking back hot tears of national pride for either Irish or British medal-winners in the Olympics. I don't begrudge them their win. But, for me, sporting victory doesn't translate into some kind of burning, hand-on-heart national euphoria. The space reserved for patriotism is empty.

Maybe it's because I come from Northern Ireland. We're caught in a strange no-man's-land between Irishness and Britishness, where national feeling of one kind or the other has traditionally assumed gargantuan, fight-to-the-death proportions.

As a result, patriotic pride has become distorted, devalued and drained of meaning. It has been asked to bear too much weight, to be the justification for all kinds of politically-motivated acts, from the noble to the obscene.

It's little wonder then that so many of us are suffering from flag fatigue. We'd rather get our kicks — as well as our sense of self — in other ways.

One of the biggest challenges of a post-conflict society is developing a collective sense of identity. That's not something that you can buy flat-packed from the Tourist Board, suitable for instant assembly. It can't be imposed or dictated. It has to evolve over time, as old enmities — we hope — start to crumble and disintegrate, and new shared priorities grow.

At the moment, though, Northern Ireland is like a super-sensitive teenager: wobbly self-esteem, inclined to throw tantrums, easily offended, and without any real sense of who we are, or what we stand for.

In some ways, you can't really blame us. So often, we are treated as a kind of non-state, an afterthought hardly worth mentioning. British Olympics officials obviously didn't think twice about excluding us when they called the UK sportspeople “Team GB”. Their heads were too full of slinky Stella McCartney-designed leotards and fantasies about David Beckham driving a speedboat up the Thames to worry about slighting Northern Irish athletes.

It only made it worse when David Cameron jetted over to take a quick juke around the Giant’s Causeway and give us a patronising pat on the head to show how special and important we are to him. Sure hadn't he taken time out of his glittering Olympics schedule to tell us so?

I wouldn't go quite as far as that arch-curmudgeon Morrissey, the ex-Smiths frontman, who insists that the Olympics are “foul with patriotism” and “blustering jingoism”.

But it is hard to take the self-congratulatory guff spouted by the English press about “the glory of this golden summer of sport” and the supreme virtue of patriotism as “a moral force that inspires self-sacrifice”.

We also have to tolerate, through gritted teeth, London Games supremo Sebastian Coe doing his best Winston Churchill impression, telling us that this is British sport's “finest hour”, and remarkably even claiming that “in every Olympic sport there is all that matters in life.”

He's definitely lost the run of himself, as we say in these parts.

The only place that we Northern Irish can find common ground, it seems, is when one of our own gets a rough ride. It's the one thing we can all really get behind.

Witness the outrage over cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel's exclusion from the GB squad. Unfortunately, it also brings out our worst side as well: all our insecurity and paranoia, our suspicions that Houvenaghel was left out not because the existing team were six-time world record holders, but because the selectors were prejudiced against Northern Ireland.

If we're ever going to evolve as a society, we really need to get over this ugly, foolish inferiority complex. It's in striking contrast to the confidence and maturity of the Republic of Ireland who, as Irish athlete Derval O'Rourke remarked, are happy to treat the London Olympics as their home games.

So it seems that we still have a lot of growing up to do, especially where flag-waving is concerned.

But something happened last weekend that cheered me up no end. To my surprise, I spotted a giant rainbow flag flying in a row of terraced houses in East Belfast, in celebration of the gay Pride parade. You wouldn't have seen that 10 years ago.

The fact that it was there at all, and that it wasn't ripped down and immediately burned on an impromptu bonfire, was a small victory for love, freedom and tolerance.

I'm telling you, there's hope for us yet.

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