Belfast Telegraph

Giro d'Italia: We embraced our inner 'pink man' as Giro wooed us

By Gail Walker

No one who saw us last week would have believed what they witnessed of us last weekend. As is so often the case, it was the Van the Man songbook that summed it up: "Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?" But wouldn't it just?

The people of Northern Ireland did the Giro d'Italia proud. It was strangely appropriate given our reputation of being a grimly masculine society that the predominant colour was pink – and the sort of magenta pink that could only be brought to us by the flamboyant Italians.

For days there was the sound of stays being undone as uptight northerners let go their inhibitions.

Whether it was the crowds thronging around Belfast City Hall, or the good people cheering on the cyclists as they raced down the highways and byways of rural Ulster, we were there to show our fun side, that we could enjoy ourselves, that we were normal people, too.

And we weren't going to let our all-too-typical weather, or a complete ignorance of international cycling, rob us of our chance to be part of something outside of our daily routine.

Okay, so we got soaked to the skin, but it was more like dancing in the Tivoli mountains, determined to grab a small slice of La Dolce Vita.

Cynics might sneer about it being a gigantic marketing exercise, the same way they did about the Titanic centenary, but none among the watching thousands were docile pawns of the hidden decision makers.

By nature a curmudgeonly lot, we always know when we are being sold a pup. So, no, we were there for one reason only – because it was a great gas.

Secretly, many of us were tickled by the incongruity of Northern Ireland being linked to Italy. And it is quite funny – if we are talking about polar opposites, then what places and people could be more unlike each other?

From the table to the bedroom, from the sunny skies of Tuscany to the foreboding, scuttling clouds of Portrush, how could we be any more different? And yet... and yet.

Like a giggling signora, we were seduced by it all. And maybe it was a good thing that all this romance went to our heads for a little while. Perhaps we are not quite as gruff, worldly and worldweary as we like to think we are.

The Giro was a triumph not because we put our best foot forward, or displayed wondrous efficiency – even though we did provide a top-drawer service to the visitors. No, it was a success because we allowed our heads to be turned, enjoying the reminder that this wee place is part of the wider world – and when the occasion arises, we can hold our own with the best of them.

Indeed, for all the naval gazing beforehand about the fact the cyclists would go past some of our loyalist murals and these were images that would get a global audience and what would everybody think yakety yak... in fact, as they sped along the Lower Newtownards Road, those images acted only as an iconic and ironic reminder of what we are determined to leave behind.

Given the self-corroding experiences of the last fortnight – Gerry Adams's arrest, the renewed crises of the past, the bitter exchanges at the top of Government – it was amazing to see that 'selfie' of Mairtin O Muilleoir, Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson at City Hall.

Likewise, those incongruous images of be-sashed Orangemen embracing their inner PinkMan across the north coast. Thanks to the Italians and their imaginative generosity in staging some of the event here, we were given a respite from the onerous duty of being from Northern Ireland.

Maybe that is why we have always loved it so much when our sporting heroes like Dame Mary Peters, George Best, Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor and our three golfers do well.

Not just because we have triumphed over the foreigner, but because their successes are proof positive that we, too, are part of the wider world.

Our politicians would do well to reflect on these scenes. We are no longer – if we ever were – the stuff of stereotypes. We are wooed by other cultures. We are wooed by other ways of living.

And it happens much more quickly than so many commentators soaked in the old attitudes and behaviours of the past would have us believe. Strangely, the harder we stare into the abyss of the past, the readier we seem to be to make sure the hard-won progress sticks.

An argument for keeping it pink in our heads and hearts from now on.

Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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