Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Michael Conlan's trainer once said 'he knows he has a lot to learn'... never were truer words spoken

If the boxer wants to be a poster boy for the Provos, that's his choice. Besides, sometimes it's better to see what's really under the mask rather than be hoodwinked by a falsehood, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Michael Conlan in the ring at the weekend in New York
Michael Conlan in the ring at the weekend in New York
Mary Lou McDonald behind the banner on St Patrick’s Day in New York

Expecting good sense from a man who gets punched in the head for a living is probably a bit optimistic, to say the least. It was still shocking to see Belfast boxer Michael Conlan walk out to the ring in New York's Madison Square Garden at the weekend to the strain of professional rabble-rousers The Wolfe Tones singing "Ooh, aah, up the 'RA".

When the crowd joined in, too, it was like the whole venue had become a west Belfast shebeen at closing time.

Are there really people so ignorant that they think terrorism is something to be celebrated, rather than deplored?

That's a rhetorical question. Of course there are. Many of them get elected to influential positions in Northern Irish life and, while some of the fury from unionist politicians at Conlan's decision to turn his latest professional fight into what looked to all the world like a republican rally may have been opportunistic, beneath the chorus of noise was heartfelt dismay.

It would be easy to make excuses for Conlan on the grounds of age. He's part of a generation which has grown up not having to live in daily fear of terrorist violence.

The temptation to make allowances for young people just because they didn't live through the worst of the Troubles should be resisted, however.

The conflict may seem long ago and far away to some, but there's nothing except laziness, or bloody-mindedness, stopping them from getting educated about the ugly reality behind the jaunty rebel songs.

Distance undoubtedly encourages such crassness. Conlan has spoken before about how he started listening to rebel music when living in Los Angeles. That happens a lot.

People who are mild as milk at home let themselves go in a new environment. The IRA campaign no doubt looks much more romantic when seen from 5,000 miles away. A minute's thought is all it takes to remember what the IRA really stands for.

Given the litany of atrocities to its name, chanting slogans of support for the IRA should be as unacceptable as saluting the Ku Klux Klan, or Islamic State.

Why should excusing one mass killing be unacceptable, while doing the same because a different set of victims died is shrugged off as a bit of harmless fun?

The same goes for Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald marching on St Patrick's Day behind a banner saying "England, Get Out Of Ireland". The Dublin woman makes great play of reaching out to unionists, insisting their rights and identity are under no threat in Sinn Fein's vision of a united Ireland, only for the mask to constantly slip.

Imagine the reaction if DUP leader Arlene Foster went out marching behind a banner saying "Ireland, Get Out Of Ulster", or if the DUP tweeted the picture, as Sinn Fein did, with the caption: "No explanation needed". Nationalists would be beside themselves with indignation. And rightly so.

Those minded to defend Michael Conlan are hiding behind an old comforting lie, namely that it's not sectarian when someone on your side of the fence does it. When "we" do something, it's simply taking pride in a particular culture and identity. When "Themmuns" do it, it's bigotry.

Both sides are equally guilty of this. Hypocrisy is a shared religion in Northern Ireland and the number of those who are able to rise above it is correspondingly low.

Unionist politicians who responded with a torrent of whataboutery to the news that Soldier "F" is to face charges of murder and attempted murder for his actions on Bloody Sunday were equally guilty of seeing the world through sectarian-tinted glasses.

Interestingly, Irish boxing has always striven to behave better than the politicians.

From former world champion Barry "Clones Cyclone" McGuigan to the man regarded by many as his natural heir, Carl Frampton, the sport has produced an admirable number of ambassadors for inclusiveness.

When Tiger's Bay native Frampton was targeted by Twitter trolls for wearing an Antrim GAA shirt, his Catholic wife even responded by posting another picture of her husband in a GAA top and a pair of tracksuit bottoms with the emblem of the Northern Ireland football team.

There could be no better demonstration of what he stands for and it's genuinely deflating to see Michael Conlan tarnish his sport's hard won-legacy.

Local people have always taken collective pride in boxers who hit the big time, whichever community they came from. When Conlan returned after winning bronze at the 2012 Olympics, he travelled across the city in an open-top bus along with the other medal winners.

Thousands lined the streets. There were chants of "Ole, ole, ole". The atmosphere would have been very different if a section of the crowd had burst into pro-IRA slogans.

Sportspeople are huge role models, whether they want that responsibility or not. Does Conlan really want to be known as the boxer who comes out fighting to chants about the IRA?

As the old civil rights slogan has it, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Insofar as no one could argue that glorifying the IRA helps heal a society in which nearly 2,000 were killed by that organisation alone, he can't complain if he's now deemed, sadly, to be part of the problem - especially since he refuses to express any regret.

Having said that, you know what? If that's what Michael Conlan is, and what he represents, then it's best to know about it, without gilding the (Easter) lily.

There are plenty like him, after all, and on both sides, as the apologists for Bloody Sunday show. Is it not better to see what's really underneath the mask, rather than be seduced by a falsehood?

Society might not be a better place if everyone was true to themselves, sectarian warts and all, but it would be a more radically honest one and the current tactic of pretending that sectarian tensions can be overcome with some touchy-feely, hands-across-the-divide blarney can hardly be said to have worked.

Early in Michael Conlan's career, renowned trainer Adam Booth recognised he had what it takes to reach the top. He had the talent. He had the charisma. More importantly, Booth said he "knows he has a lot to learn". This is one occasion when he could prove it.

If, after due consideration, he decides he wants to be a poster boy for the IRA, that's his decision. He'll lose the goodwill of many people who've supported him until now, but that's entirely his choice to make.

What he can't do it have his cake and eat it - and nor can Northern Ireland.

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