Saturday, 11 August 2012
How Eamonn Mallie got me thinking
Sometimes - particularly at weekends - I feel a terrible lassitude coming over me, where I don't want ever to write another word about anything in the world, real or imagined. Then I'll come across something that will spark me into life, either because I think the person has hit the proverbial nail soundly on the head or that the person in question has missed the point by a country mile.
I had that experience just five minutes ago, when I stumbled on an Eamonn Mallie piece in The Belfast Telegraph. Mallie with commendable courage and clarity raised a point worthy of attention: do we here in the north cheer with equal vigour for all the Irish athletes? Before you say "Yes, yes and yes", consider Mallie's cricket-test follow-up question: do nationalists cheer for fellow-countrymen competing in Team GB colours, do unionists cheer for fellow-countrymen competing in Team Ireland colours? Mallie accurately concludes that we don't. Yes, yes, I know: there are exceptions. But we're talking generally here.
And then Mallie asks the hard question: why? Why do we divide so sharply in our loyalties? His conclusion - which he supports by quoting Mary McAleese - is that under the skin we're good old-fashioned bigots. "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?"
That's where I think Mallie misses the barn door and hits the next parish. There may be sectarian bigots who don't cheer for Team Ireland or Team GB, but at a guess I'd say 90%+ don't cheer, not because the person is a Catholic or a Protestant (Katie Taylor for example is a devout Pentecostalist) but because of their political allegiances. In this case nationalist and unionist. Mallie quotes Mary McAleese and urges us to look at sport as sport and leave aside the sectarian baggage. Wrong and wrong. One, as I say it's political baggage, not sectarian; and two, to talk of taking politics out of sport, particularly the Olympics, is to head-butt yourself against the facts of sporting life. What's that thing that gets carried at the opening ceremony? The national flag. What is it every gold/silver/bronze medallist does as soon as s/he has won? Wraps him/herself in the national flag. What's that song they're playing after the podium has been mounted and the gold medal received? The national anthem.
Cheering or not cheering has nothing to do with sectarian dislike of the "neighbour's children"; it has to do with the political allegiance they have declared when they appear in the colours of Team Ireland or Team GB. A pity, yes. But if you divide a country in two, what do you expect but divided loyalties? And national loyalties are woven tightly and inextricably into the Olympic Games. You did notice that frequently-shown medals-league-table-by-nation, didn't you?