Belfast Telegraph

Why can't we all applaud both Alan and Paddy?

Even the Games has divided us into Team GB or Team Ireland supporters, says Eamonn Mallie

The dictionary definition of a bigot is 'a person obstinately or intolerably devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices especially one who regards or treats the members of a group, such as a racial or ethnic group, with hatred and intolerance'.

Former Irish President Mary McAleese said "there is a sediment of sectarianism in us all". She was speaking about you and me as citizens of Northern Ireland.

For me it was one of the most profound and at the same time disturbing observations. Mrs McAleese essentially picked at a great big Northern Ireland scab and before you become too indignant and righteous, how often have you danced on a pin head, buying time to suss out the identity, background and outlook of your latest acquaintance before proffering an opinion?

I sparked some controversy with my Twitter postings last week when I asked: "Am I right in thinking the Catholic nationalist community is lukewarm about the success of our local rowers in the Olympics?"

What was immediately noticeable was an absence on the social networks of any recognition or acknowledgement of the achievements of the Coleraine rowers in the Olympics. Where were the statements of congratulations for these young men - neighbours' children from just up the road - from leaders of the nationalist community?

On challenging members of the GAA, not in any scientific way, I got my answer: "Nah. Our GAA people wouldn't be into that TeamGB stuff; TeamIreland - that would be different."

On the back of my drawing attention to the inattention of the nationalist community to the prowess of the young rowers (and I single out Alan Campbell whose tormented head will rest on my retina for a long time), a member of the SDLP slipped out what I deemed a belated statement of congratulations.

The exuberance of the waving of the Union flags and the rowers declaration of 'pride' in rowing for 'the British Isles' did not go down well in the GAA heartland.

What had they got to do with the medal-winning Olympians? Nothing. Their achievements didn't register as members of TeamGB.

West Belfast and nationalist Ireland rocked yesterday as Katie Taylor and Paddy Barnes punched their way to victory - so how did this go down in the Protestant unionist community?

One honest decent Protestant man well known to me has been speaking openly to me about the success of local boxers in the Olympics and about his attitude to GAA teams all over the island of Ireland battling it out for the Sam Maguire Cup in late September.

He said: "I know nothing about them. TeamGB is number one for me. I was embarrassed, however, when Ireland had no medals to take the bad look off it.

"When the rowers won I felt, if only there was a dual identity because I felt Ireland was sort of short-changed of the success.

"We're one country with an invisible border, yet we can't have a common identity on sporting issues."

On the GAA, my Protestant friend from Tyrone was more strident: "It is as far away as possible. It fascinates me how detached I am. There is no one I could talk to about Gaelic football in Tyrone.

"The GAA park is just a mile up the road from where I live. I feel we are miles apart and yet we live just a mile apart."

This straight-talking Protestant added: "The average Protestant would be ignorant of some of the names after which some GAA clubs are called but they would know there is a sniff of republicanism about them."

Sinn Fein DCAL Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, congratulating Northern medal winners, said: "We have also, of course, now five medals at the Games - we have truly rowed for glory and are punching above our weight."

Caral Ni Chuilin doesn't impress this Protestant: he accused her of being divisive through her choice of language:

"I heard the minister at Stormont and I thought I was listening to Ceausescu. She was speaking about 'the British Queen' - Republican jargon. This was like a throwback to the days of Sinn Fein/IRA," he said.

We can all point to many examples where children from Catholic backgrounds are playing rugby in state schools like Methodist College in Belfast but that too opens up another front. Does it work the other way? How many children of a Protestant persuasion attend Catholic schools and play Gaelic football? Few I suspect.

In Northern Ireland, education is divisive and partitioning. The Irish language is divisive. Sport too is divisive. Politics far too often enters the equation here too.

We have only to recall the controversy surrounding Neil Lennon who played for Northern Ireland, and recently we had regular ministerial and political commentary on footballer James McClean who opted to play for the Republic of Ireland, even though he comes from Northern Ireland.

Why should politics or politicians be involved in sport except to guarantee the best possible facilities and opportunities for athletes to outperform all others at home and abroad?

If our administration fails to deliver for aspiring young athletes, will they gravitate towards other locations to realise that potential?

Apart from much of our myopic approach to sport, in failing to see sport for what it is, we have also to be mindful of what is commonly called 'entrenched advantage' or access to schools which indulge in expensive sports, rowing, sailing, show jumping etc. Children from working-class areas rarely get a chance to involve themselves in such sports.

This is a critical time for us all to take a long, hard look at ourselves. If sport fails to lift us out of our narrow bigoted sectarian quagmire, failing to bring us to admire the success of our neighbours' children starring in the Olympics - then, what does it say about us as a people?

Mindful of what Mary McAleese has said, I feel each and everyone of us has to stretch ourselves, bend our minds to embrace sports for sport's sake, even those sports which are not part of our normal domain.

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