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Footballers show us goals we should all aspire to reach

By Gail Walker

Published 13/10/2015

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

The new series of Nolan on BBCNI last Thursday drew much comment as our representatives got tore into each other with what was generally regarded as particular venom - ie, those politicos with whom we disagree (whoever they are from whatever side) said things with which those of us who disagreed with them disagreed. Big deal.

We will always find those politicos most obstructive, hypocritical and frankly evil, whom we politically disliked in the first place.

But the idea that our politicians in Stormont are any more loathsome or inept than politicians elsewhere is one of the myths our divided society perpetuates so that we can all shake our heads and roll our eyes in public as we all pretend we "just want the politicians to sort it out" when it is we - the voters - who differ most violently about what "it" is and what "sorting" actually means.

We like to give the impression that our politicians are the problem, not us.

Even so, even in the midst of such reality-checking, what could be called our real leaders were preparing a more coherent statement of where we are as a people: to stick three past a goalkeeper from Greece.

Another society would recognise that Michael O'Neill and his lower league journeymen are at least vaguely cognisant with the idea of it being 2015 as opposed to 1921. There would be a sense that there was more common sense said in a few hours at Windsor Park than in all the recent Nolans, Talkbacks and The Views and UTV Lives laid end-to-end.

The build-up to the Euro 2016 group qualifier with Greece, in a word, was about "hope". Not just hope that O'Neill and his men would spend next summer in Gallic climes.

It was also hope that this could be a better society, we could be a better people (and just better people), united in a way that doesn't involve borders, one-up-manship or trying to put a hex or shower hate on the other side.

As Van pointedly queries, "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?"

They did it, of course. O'Neill, Davis and Magennis did it - with passion and emotion (qualities always associated with our people), but also cold-eyed professionalism and a refusal to be sidetracked (that's a hint to our politicians).

The Republic's side, under their own northern O'Neill, are two games away from joining Kyle Lafferty and Niall McGinn in France, out of a horrendous group with world champions Germany.

That team have the backing of a formidable national Press and broadcast machine behind them, but we can join our voices to the rising chorus of support.

It's clear from the victory over Germany how important to national self-confidence that effort was, so it's no surprise the success of the Northern Ireland side carries much of the same positive cargo with it.

There are deeper hurts in our society, more terrible and vengeful demons in our homes and streets, than will ever be eased by a Northern Ireland footballer scoring a winner, or, in the perspective of those who still resent the fact the team (and the country) exists at all, even by the side being beaten. But Thursday against Greece at least pointed a way to a better future.

There were positive symbols aplenty: a Catholic manager who made his name in the Republic, a striker from Bangor who embodies our growing diversities, a team drawn from across the religious and political divide. But the important thing was the common cause the whole squad found in each other. Very slowly, the old rabid bitternesses are on the decline. More people, younger but not always, are prepared to reach out across barriers their predecessors or younger selves, found impossible to negotiate.

The evidence is all around us. The revival of Belfast city centre, the new buildings and complexes, the Odyssey (or the SSE Arena), the Waterfront, the Titanic Quarter. There is more true expression of where we're at in one of our many coffee houses than the Folk Museum stand-offs at Stormont, or the ugly goblins of our various paramilitary rumps.

Yes, social analysts will point to areas of deprivation, suicide rates, chronic hopelessness in some of our estates, but those aren't unique to here. We have a healthier society even than 20 years ago. We are not killing our neighbours and the vast, the overwhelming majority even of those who thought that was once a useful option, have not thought so literally for decades.

What moves us to action more: Syrian refugees or Stormont? The issues on the ground are clearly "gay marriage" v "traditional values". Waiting lists. School places. Immigration and emigration. Fracking. The environment. Developing as a tourist destination.

The fact is - the mean-spiritedness, the nastiness, the gun-ridden hangover of our sectarian disputes are not welcome here any more than they are in the Republic, or in Britain. What is welcome is the kind of positive ambition and common effort the Northern Ireland team represented last week and will do in France next year.

More of that, please. Less of the bile.

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