Belfast Telegraph

Rory will never drive a wedge between us

He is not just the world’s No 1 golfer. He’s the poster boy of the post Troubles generation, says Fionola Meredith

If there's one thing we know how to do well, it's show pride when one of our own succeeds. No surprises, then, that Rory McIlroy's success in reaching the global number one spot, at the tender age of 22, was greeted with genuine delight across Northern Ireland.

That was to be expected. We're known for our fierce devotion to our local sports stars and celebrities, with never a bad word to be said against them.

No, the real surprise is that no one is talking about what foot McIlroy kicks with, or, more accurately, what club he swings with.

The old shifty-eyed inquisitiveness, the sneaky habitual compulsion to find out who people are and what tribe they come from, isn't an issue when it comes to McIlroy.

Encouragingly, the collective pride we take in his impressive sportsmanship is largely untainted by such petty, mean-spirited sectarian concerns.

Most people are unaware of what background McIlroy comes from and — better still — they just don't care. Apart from a few diehard bigots, looking to take offence, or hung up on claiming him for one side or the other, the whole country is right behind him.

Of course, it's not the first time that a sportsman from Northern Ireland has been able to bring people together.

The most obvious example is Barry McGuigan, the 1980s boxing champion who, as the carnage of the Troubles continued outside the ring, made an emphatic point of his political neutrality, winning public affection and cross-community support in the process.

McGuigan wore shorts emblazoned with a dove of peace and, instead of choosing a national anthem, he would get his father to sing Danny Boy before his bouts.

In the politically febrile 1980s, it was a real struggle for McGuigan to transcend sectarian boundaries and the only way to do it was by making his conscious neutrality definite and overt.

But for McIlroy, the personable, curly-headed poster-boy of the sunny, post-Troubles generation, it's been different. He has skilfully — though seemingly casually — side-stepped attempts to force him to pick a side and stick to it. The message seems to be that, for Rory, it's just not that big a deal.

McIlroy simply won't answer questions about whether he sees himself as Irish or British, preferring to describe himself as Northern Irish. This bears out in his professional choices, too: he represented Ireland in the 2009 World Cup of Golf, but says he will probably play for Britain in the 2016 Olympic Games.

When he was interviewed on CNN by Piers Morgan, the English-born former tabloid editor — who makes great play of his Irish antecedents — was determined to weasel an answer to his nationality out of McIlroy. But, in spite of Morgan's best efforts, the young golfer wasn't going to let himself be bounced into a glib reply. Why should he?

It was the same when he ignored the Irish flag that a spectator chucked at him when he won the US Open last year. There was a ridiculous row over whether he'd snubbed nationalists in doing so, but McIlroy was right to refuse the forcible assignation of a political or religious identity. I'd like to think he would have done the same if it had been a Union Flag thrown in his direction.

McIlroy's steadfast neutrality, and determination to rise above issues of political identity, is all the more impressive given his family history.

In 1972, the UVF murdered his great uncle for trying to integrate his Catholic family into an overwhelmingly Protestant part of east Belfast. Joe McIlroy was shot through his kitchen door. No one was ever convicted of the murder.

Rory McIlroy's own story has a dramatically different outcome. He was raised a Catholic in prosperous, middle-class, largely-Protestant Holywood, attended a non-sectarian grammar school and became friends with many Protestants — including his unceremoniously dumped ex-girlfriend Holly Sweeney. (But, hey, perhaps it's a bit much to expect the guy to be a model of gallantry and good manners, as well as an international superstar sportsman.)

So long may Rory continue to duck the national flags aimed at him, whether real or figurative.

Personal identity should never be reducible to a set of unchanging political co-ordinates. It's far more complicated and colourful than that — or at least it should be.

And it's great to see that, in supporting McIlroy, more and more people are genuinely indifferent to perceived political or religious allegiances. Whisper it quietly, but maybe we're beginning to realise that other things in life are more important.

One final thought, though. Let's remember that Rory is his own man. To make him the public face of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland is almost as bad as assigning him to one political side or the other.

He's not a symbol, he's an individual in his own right and he doesn't actually belong to us.

Rory McIlroy is a great golfer and we are proud of him. Let's continue to wish him well and leave it at that.

Read Fionola Meredith in the Belfast Telegraph every Wednesday

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