Why did the Olympic torch cross the border? Or the chicken cross the road? You could get as many answers to both questions as there are people. But if we concentrate on the torch, most commentators seem to agree it was A Good Thing.
Why? Because it shows how warm is the friendship between Britain and the south of Ireland and how animosity between them is receding fast. The fact that Shankill boxer Wayne McCullough, who got a silver Olympic medal for Ireland in 1992, passed the flame to Dublin boxer Michael Carruth, who got a gold for Ireland at the same Games, is seen as an embodiment of that new spirit. Simples.
Except I don’t get it – torch or detour. Simple soul that I am, I was under the impression there was one Olympic torch, lit in Greece and then passed from hand to hand, from country to country, until finally the flame in the host country flares above the Olympic stadium. Remember the poignancy of Muhammed Ali lighting that final flame in 1996? That greatest of athletes, bringing the torch to its final destination. Now they tell me it’s not one torch, it’s hundreds, maybe thousands. In fact if you carry it you can keep it, providing you cough up several hundred quid. Then you can position it in your bedroom or flog it on eBay, as some apparently have done. Somehow I feel disillusioned about the torch.
I’m also a bit iffy about the flame travelling south of the border. The Olympics are being hosted by Britain, and well done them. There must have been some pretty heavy lobbying and arm-twisting over a sustained period to make that happen. But in the end Britain prevailed and I take my hat off to them. However, since the south of Ireland isn’t part of Britain, why send the torch there? If you’re intent on temporary export, wouldn’t sending it by Eurostar to Paris or by boat to Calais be nearer its final London destination?
Now if the south of Ireland were part of Britain, or even part of the British Commonwealth …Hold on. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the torch travelled south as a way of demonstrating that Britain is open to the idea of a united Ireland within her Commonwealth, or even within her British Isles. Granted, it was Michael Carruth and not Eamon O Cuiv who appeared in vest and shorts at the border crossing, but the British like to do these things with a subtle touch. So maybe the torch going south is saying “Lead, kindly light, back into the arms of Mother Britain”.
Maybe. On the other hand, maybe that’s a total misreading. Perhaps in fact it’s the other way round. Maybe, rather than signifying that all of Ireland is or could once more be a part of Britain or the British Commonwealth, the McCullough-to-Carruth torch was meant to highlight the possibility of Irish reunification and independence. Maybe the Olympic flame travelling throughout Ireland was used as a thumbs-up to the spark of freedom that has burned in so many Irish hearts for so many centuries. Maybe it was a first step in getting Irish people north and south to see that their best interests are served when the border is effectively ignored.
Mmm. Or maybe the torch is intended to dazzle so we won’t see the real picture. The one thing that didn’t feature in all the talk of friendly gestures and hands across the border was the fact that Britain runs the north of Ireland. Yes, I know we have the Executive at Stormont, but we also have 5,000 British troops. And because Westminster holds the purse-strings, Westminster ultimately calls the tune in the north. But it’s a bit like the emperor’s new clothes – no one likes to say it out loud. Maybe if we stop talking about it, it’ll cease to be an issue. That convince you? Nah, me neither.
So here’s my suggestion. Anytime anyone talks about the torch, or the possibility of Martin McGuinness meeting the queen, or Wayne and Michael, or any other stuff like that, there should be a rule that requires them to first explain how they view the continued claim to jurisdiction of this little island-corner by Britain. Yes I know the Belfast Telegraph tells us 93% of the population in the north wouldn’t dream of coming out from under the wing of Westminster, but the Belfast Telegraph tells us many things, week after week, not all of which are strictly factual. Meanwhile, if we keep closing our eyes to the source of our difficulty, we’ll remain in a dream-world where facts are never faced.