Belfast Telegraph

Paddy Barnes' acceptance of MBE proves it's our sporting icons showing us the way forward

By Henry McDonald

Shaking hands with Martin McGuinness in Dublin's Moore Street on Monday afternoon, our very brief conversation turned to sport, specifically football.

McGuinness, with a bag of bananas in one hand and an Irish Times in the other, said hello to my son Patrick. The subject turned quickly to which soccer team Pat supported, to which I replied: "Er, Liverpool."

That prompted the Deputy First Minister to share my pain - one of his own was also a follower of the team on the other side of Stanley Park, he admitted.

I thought about the Deputy First Minister on New Year's Eve after hearing that one of our boxing heroes, Paddy Barnes, had been awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours list for his services to his sport and the entire community.

Why should a gong for the north Belfast pugilist be in any way controversial, given the new times we live in? After all Martin McGuinness has shaken the Queen's hand several times now and has even acted as tour guide in 2014 for the monarch around a certain institution he was once incarcerated in during the Troubles.

Apart from dissident republicans, most nationalists in Northern Ireland seem relaxed about McGuinness pressing royal flesh or attending functions such as the recent, groundbreaking visit of Irish President Michael D Higgins to London.

Sinn Fein strategists realised back in 2011 that they had made a mistake by boycotting the party the Republic enthusiastically threw for the Queen during his historic trip there.

So, if being polite and taking up a royal invitation is good enough for the former IRA chief-of-staff turned Sinn Fein peace negotiator, then surely it is good enough for one of our finest sporting ambassadors to politely accept an MBE.

Local sportsmen and women have always been able to transcend traditional sectarian and political barriers in the north of Ireland: think Barry McGuigan or George Best, and the respect, affection and adoration they commanded from every section of the community, even during the darkest of days.

Our current sporting icons have also demonstrated how to deftly avoid the landmines set down via the politics of identity.

Rory McIlroy has stated that it doesn't matter which flag he marches behind in the Olympics next year. Barnes and his good friend Carl Frampton personify all that is admirable in the northern boxing tradition. While Barnes is unashamedly Irish, accepting the MBE doesn't diminish one bit his own identity.

I cheered on the Republic of Ireland soccer team at Italia '90 and still look back on that summer as one of the greatest of my life (I was there to write a couple of colour pieces, including one from Rome ahead of the quarter final). Yet I am still an unapologetic Northern Ireland supporter.

In fact, I can recall the schizoid nature of the Spion Kop in the Seventies, when sick sectarian singing was the norm and yet, at the same time, those denouncing "the Taigs" and "the Fenians" beside me were chanting "Super Pat, Super Pat" every time that goalkeeping genius Pat Jennings saved what should have been a certain goal.

Hypocrisy? Yes. But it only underlined how Northern Ireland progressed, because the side "kicked with both feet" in the glory years of the early-1980s - even if the boneheads on the Kop were unable to grasp that. Barnes is a Cliftonville fan while Frampton supports their north Belfast rivals Crusaders.

Yet even this rivalry, it could be argued, points up how a love of the game builds more bridges than it burns.

As a fellow Red, I was despondent on Boxing Day when the Crues snatched a win at Solitude. Naturally, I want Cliftonville to make more history in the spring by bouncing back, beating all around them (especially the Crues and the Blues) and winning three titles in a row.

However, the will to win does not diminish the respect most devoted Cliftonville fans have for their rival supporters - particularly the fans down at Seaview.

When loyalist extremists picketed the Shore Road and prevented a derby game going ahead two seasons ago, I was inundated with texts, tweets and Facebook messages from Crusaders fans (some of whom would be lifelong unionists and loyalists themselves) expressing their disgust over the targeting of a football game for political purposes.

I drink with a couple of Crusaders supporters - one of whom happens to be a north Belfast Catholic who never allowed the Troubles, or the dangers it posed him personally, to get in the way of following the "Hatchet Men" from the 1960s.

It is heartening to know that two of Cliftonville's supporters were honoured in the Queen's New Year Honours list: not only Paddy Barnes, but also the club's president, Jim Boyce, the latter for services to football over the decades.

No one has the right to deny either men their freedom to accept these honours and none should question their national identities - whatever they may be.

There is, however, one profession where - in my personal opinion - the practitioners should not agree to get an award from the Queen, or, indeed, from any Head of State.

No journalist, in my view, should accept an award from the State, whether they live in a liberal democracy headed by a monarch or a democratic republic.

The Fourth Estate, as the media is known, is there to hold power to account and, most importantly of all, the power of the State itself.

Those in this profession cannot be perceived to be taking any favour from the State lest their independence is called into question.

This is not to suggest that any media worker who takes a gong is dependent on the State. It is in the end a question of personal conscience.

Nonetheless, there is an important principle which has to be amplified to the wider public: journalists have to be seen above fear and favour when it comes to governments. Nor is this in any way motivated by anti-British sentiment.

If the Republic introduced their own form of civic honours list, I would suggest it would be better if journalists and editors in Dublin and elsewhere opt out of such an award system.

Gongs are best left to the people who deserve them most: the lollipop ladies, the charity organisers, the nurses, the doctors, the policemen, the soldiers, the selfless and the altruistic.

And, yes, the boxers, too.

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