Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Going, going, gong ... how snub really puts us in our place

It is incredible, really. In some ways, trivial. In other ways, deeply insulting. Amid the fairly gratuitous self-congratulation of the New Year's Honours list, the fact that no sportsperson from Northern Ireland features in the roster of awards is odd.

Even on a bad day, we usually manage to rack up a few 'contribution to community life' awards for darts club organisers, pigeon fanciers or boxing trainers.

Not this time.

Instead, we have racked up a truly astonishing statistic. That in an Olympic and Paralympic year of unparalleled success nationally, Northern Ireland has not managed to slip in even one sports person as worthy of State recognition.

Make no mistake about this. It is not an accident. Someone somewhere - in Downing Street or some other hideout of Whitehall - asked the question, shouldn't we have someone from Northern Ireland? And someone somewhere said no, we shouldn't.

There is no point waffling that the awards aren't calculated that way, or that gold medals led the awards, or that there was some confusion as to which country NI citizens were representing - none of that actually counts.

That is precisely the way the awards are calculated and, at certain times in the past, NI has benefited remarkably from a rain of unexpected gongs calculated to raise morale and mark special achievement.

But not this time. No one was worth it.

Remember the gold post boxes? That the perennial underachievers of Britain - especially England - managed to hoover up an appropriate total of golds (which seem to be all that matters now, you can dump your sad silvers and boring bronzes) is indeed an occasion for special treatment. But surely one would have thought that the achievement of athletes and parathletes from tiny Northern Ireland might have been worth at least one award from our Government and our Crown?

But not one. Not even one.

Even more remarkably - I'm being ironic now - is the fact the BBC, cheerleader-in-chief for the gongs this time round, seemed strangely not to have noticed the fact that no Northern Ireland athletes or parathletes featured in the awards. Was that not a news story in the midst of the windfall of new medals?

So, while the weekend bulletins were led - on every BBC station from One to Five and digitally - by breathy accounts of the 'gold rush' gong recipients, no one noticed - apparently - that NI was entirely unrepresented.

In reality, of course it must have been noticed. Surely someone somewhere - in Broadcasting House in London as much as in Ormeau Avenue - asked the question, shouldn't we comment on the fact there are no sports gongs for Northern Ireland? And someone somewhere must have said no we shouldn't. Just like the award decisions in the first place, presumably an editorial decision was taken not to comment on it. What else could explain it?

Take note, people. That's what a 'State broadcaster' is for and why the BBC has never been truly part of the Fourth Estate.

Right from the off, right from the designation of 'Team GB' which automatically excluded 'Northern Ireland', we were on the back foot. Brand UK didn't fit. Brand GB did.

But the simple fact is Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain. That's not just semantics either. GB is the 'other island' and that's not us. The UK is where we live and we are the only jurisdiction which actually needs the UK brand to ensure inclusivity - whatever happens to the 'United Kingdom' in Scottish terms, post referendum, 'Great Britain' will still be usable for local issues such as common sports, TV jargon or casual reference.

But it won't work for us. Hence there was no appetite to address our tiny identity issue at the outset by using Team UK rather than GB. Yes, some print commentators drew attention to the matter in the national press. Yes, there was some embarrassment from some broadcast commentators during particular events featuring NI athletes and parathletes ... but they got over it, without breaching their editorial rules.

So let it just be noted for the record. Almost 80 people linked with the Olympics and Paralympics were recognised in the New Year Honours and none - not even one - was from Northern Ireland.

Thanks, Great Britain. Much appreciated.

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