Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Rory’s national choice is none of our business

Andy Murray’s Scottish identity is essentially frivolous. But fixating on Rory McIlroy’s risks turning him into factional sectarian property, says Malachi O’Doherty

Suddenly it matters whether Rory McIlroy is British or Irish. People want to know if he is going to play for Britain or Ireland in the Olympics.

And that’s a legitimate interest, because, on his current form, he would be likely to bring home a gold — wherever home is.

But wasn’t part of the beauty of the miracle of McIlroy that he was untainted by our old obsession with identity?

I didn’t know whether he was from a Protestant or a Catholic background until a newspaper told me and I didn’t want to know.

The fact that he had an Irish name and an Ulster flag on his website — now gone — made him seem quaintly post-modern.

It seemed possible to relish the prospect that he had spent so much time playing golf that he didn’t think about, know about, or have any relevance to the tiresome arguments about who we are and what side we are on.

Now he has to declare and, even though he has tried to discourage the ongoing speculation, it doesn’t stop.

Yesterday, Good Morning Ulster on Radio Ulster invited listeners to text in their opinions.

And, you know, if this was just like the question of whether Andy Murray is Scottish or British, it would all be just amusing. But we have a different context here, one in which a sportsperson can be subjected to abuse for declaring allegiance because numpties and button-heads will decide on the basis of it whether he is one of ours, or one of theirs.

There will be some who will argue now that we are in a post-conflict era in which it is perfectly possible to discuss identity and allegiance without it mattering at any visceral level.

They will say: this is not about who McIlroy belongs to, or who he identifies with; it is simply a question of practical considerations and good faith.

He was nurtured in his golfing on Irish courses and to let British golf get the credit for this would be an injustice.

As if anyone is going to miss the facts of the McIlroy story, just because he wears a Team GB shirt, if that’s what he chooses to do. Everyone will know.

Oh, say some, to register for Britain would be an act of disloyalty to the Irish system in which he thrived — as if Ireland hasn’t already gained sufficient credit and more for his achievements.

But now we are in danger of turning him into factional sectarian property. The way to avert that danger was just to not make an issue of it.

The primary concern here is that he should have the right to identify himself as he pleases.

When he started playing inside the Irish system, he was a boy and nothing in that great opportunity obliged him to commit himself for life to representing Ireland.

We have had too much of people being told by others who they are, or what they stand for. We are also lumbered with the idea that identity is some kind of obligation on us, when it is not our country, or tradition, which identify us, but we who identify with them, or not, as we choose.

Coincidentally, when McIlroy’s allegiances suddenly became a matter of public concern, Andy Murray was out winning his first Grand Slam and thereby reopening the question of whether he is British, or Scottish.

The answer turns out not to be affected at all by his representing Britain in the Olympics.

He is determinedly Scottish and has no sense that he compromised that by waving the Union Flag around him after he won his gold medal.

By the next Olympics, if Scottish independence has been secured in the coming referendum, Murray may have to cut the distinction a little finer: he may then be in the same position as McIlroy.

For now, however, the question of Murray’s identity is frivolous. Nothing is changed for anyone by him being called one thing, or the other.

There is, after all, something absurd about nations taking credit for their sportspeople, as there is for whole populations being heartened, or dismayed, by the fortunes of the football team they imagine represents them.

But sport is a substitute now for territorial conflict by harsher means.

The Olympic vision is that nations can find peace between each other through competition on the sports field, or the track. And it works — to a degree.

The sight of teams from around the world parading their eagerness and joy, under their national flags on parade, does present a vision of all the peoples of the world being implicated together in the quest for human perfection.

It is amazing. We have seen that.

So how paradoxical and contrary to the vision it would be for a player to suffer derision and alienation for putting himself under the flag of his choice when, in this case, that choice rightly belongs to him and no one else.

‘He has right to identify himself as |he pleases’

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