Belfast Telegraph

Why unlike Rory, for Northern Ireland's political class bigotry and bile will always be simply par for the course

Golfing superstar's views on identity, religion and loyalties will ring true with many people here writes Gail Walker

So, Rory McIlroy doesn't know the words to God Save the Queen or The Soldiers' Song? Perhaps, rather than tut-tutting from our respective camps, we should see the superstar golfer's ignorance of "our" national anthems as a sign of hope. After all, look where our punctilious fathers and grandfathers led us. There is not a place name that is not soaked in blood, associated primarily not with a landmark, or half-forgotten folk tale, but morally and spiritually harrowing deeds.

McIlroy's divided loyalties are a matter of public record. A Catholic living in overwhelmingly unionist North Down, he attended a Catholic maintained primary school and followed that with Sullivan Upper, a somewhat posh state school.

Right away, McIlroy broke cover with his religious and cultural background. Good Catholics did not and do not go to state schools. They were and are - for reasons too tortuous to go into here - "Protestant" schools.

No wonder McIlroy is wary of identity. A politics of identity - which is what we endure here - that not only pointedly excludes him and people like him, but it lays traps for him to force public declarations of ultimate "belonging". It's the equivalent of the Pub Bore forever at his elbow: what team do you support?

No wonder - as the most widely known Northern Ireland "face" in the world - McIlroy is fed up with the tribal tug of war.

Speaking in an interview with the Sunday Independent of his Olympic non-participation, McIlroy echoes the feelings of many.

When forced to choose whether to play for Ireland or Great Britain & NI in last year's Olympics in Rio: "All of a sudden it put me in a position where I had to question who I am? Who am I? Where am I from? Where do my loyalties lie? Who am I going to play for? Who do I not want to p*** off the most. I started to resent it and I do. I resent the Olympic Games because of the position it put me in, that's my feelings towards it, and whether that's right or wrong, it's how I feel."

Even in his frustration, his struggle to sum up his feelings speak eloquently and to the heart of the issue: "Not everyone is (driven by) nationalism and patriotism and that's never been me, because I felt like I grew up in a place where I wasn't allowed to be. It was suppressed. I never wanted it to get political or about where I'm from, but that's what it turned into. And it just got to the point where it wasn't worth the hassle."

Rory isn't the only one troubled by our simple binaries: are you British or Irish?

It is a false dichotomy. While most of us have a position on the Union or Irish unity, that does not mean that we have no ties with the other side.

When I - from a northern unionist background - read a Seamus Heaney poem, am I to read it as if it is the work of some foreign poet? Of course not.

And what about having general goodwill towards the Republic of Ireland football team? Is that disloyal? Or what about watching RTE? Is that a betrayal?

And are those of a nationalist tradition not meant to enjoy Corrie, or holiday in the Lake District, or waste their weekends following Man United or Chelsea or Arsenal? Is reading a London-based newspaper a problem, soaking up Brit propaganda? Or only speaking English itself?

Ludicrous. And yet the logic of the Either/Or mentality is relentless.

Our recent past undermines such certainties. What we share is the fact that we have all suffered. That we are all - to some extent - trapped by our background, by our pasts. How else do you explain the daily accommodations we all make to those of "the other side" - the avoided conversations, the tactical silences, the shared ground of common experience. We have made an art form out of it. ("Whatever you say, say nothing"). That is fundamentally a decent, honourable thing.

But, sadly, McIlroy's reticence is rooted in not our past but in our present.

At 27, he is a post-Troubles Northern Irishman. He is representative of future generations. Yet even Rory McIlroy can feel the strangulation round his neck. Even he, with his millions and global fame, finds himself somehow at the mercy of half-assed smart alecks and their sinister little ethnic quizzes.

All that should have been tackled years ago. Everyone pretended it was difficult and complicated. But it never was. It was never about building monuments to commemorate the dead of the Troubles, or launching endless and endlessly-useless public inquiries into the blindingly obvious.

It was never about the futile half-hearted attempts and the empty rhetoric of "justice" and "truth". Or about commissions, or reparation, or any other oh-so-deliberately-complicated ruse. Everyone knew and knows no one will ever serve a day behind bars. Whoever they are, they all got away with it.

No. It was always simply about making sure it never happened again. That was the simplest task of all, in fact.

Put a copy of Lost Lives into every school classroom on the island, north and south.

Have readings from it every day. Publish the list of the dead without fear or favour and keep doing so. Make sure everything is done jointly.

DUP? Then go to the local GAA club and introduce yourself. Sinn Fein? Then walk up that lane to the Orange Hall and simply make yourself known as a fellow citizen and neighbour. Keep doing those things if you want to be a representative of anything valuable and worthwhile.

If you were in public life, it was about doing whatever was necessary not to return to killing for a cause.

Sadly, too many are still in their comfort zones. Still hankering after a replay, still resentful and secretly still bitter and sly. Still looking for, literally, one more shot at the title.

Bigotry, no matter how dressed up, will only do two things: principally it will kill people. Ultimately, it will fail to achieve any of the aims it pretends to support. That is borne out by facts and by history. It has failed on this island for centuries. But I wonder how many of our MLAs and councillors - there are enough of them - actually bothered to cross the road even once in their political careers? Even once? How many repeatedly made a point of crossing to the other side? We know the answer.

You had one job, Stormont. One job, NI Executive. One job, Office of The First and Deputy First Minister.

Keep us all safe from harm. Keep us safe from the worst we could do to ourselves. All we wanted was to live our lives. Have heroes like Carl and Bethany and Jason and Rory. But even they got bile chucked over them.

So, good luck at the hustings, all of you. Not that you'll need it.

Unlike our sporting heroes and the rest of us, you lot never lose.

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