Jude Collins

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?


  1. Anyone I have spoken to about the Olympics has been behind the local participants consistently, regardless of which team they chose to represent.
    On more than one occasion I have heard the question;
    "does he/she box for Ireland or GB?"
    I think ordinary people show a good deal more sense than opinion formers at times.
    Incredible as it may seem the constitutional question is not the first thought in peoples minds on such occasions.

  2. Not sure you're quite on the money here.

    Yes, as a (really moderate) unionist I see the tricolour differently to you... Lamposts marking territory and draped over the coffins of what I consider terrorists... (when you are a kid, someone tries to blow you up, they're a terrorist.. black and white) but that does not mean i fail to see myself as irish.

    I want to support people who I have a connection to.. my local football or rugby team, Antrim at GAA, Ulster at rugby, Ireland at Rugby...

    You can work out my support as the following.. inversely proportional to the distance between me (lisburn) and them...

    So by that, I support Poland more than China...

    So OF COURSE I was shouting for all the Belfast boxers, the Coleraine Rowers and name one person who was not shouting in support for Katie Taylor? I think the GB based athletes were of a higher standard than their Irish colleagues, more money perhaps, so they got a lot of cheers from me.

    I would also suggest that the Irish were the 2nd choice for the Brits.. evidenced by the cheer they got when they walked into the stadium, do you really think that the Irish boxers had a purely Irish crowd shouting for them, hardly??

    As much as you may want to find division, I think the truth is that relations between the Irish and the British are nowhere near as full of hate as you would like to think.

    1. I don't think Jude is revelling in observed division. Just pointing out how things are.

      Anyway, you may consider yourself Irish but that's not the independent, national Irish identity with which I identify, is it? You identify with an Irish identity that is British and regional in nature, or Northern Irish, in other words. You can call it whatever you like but no point in pretending our identities are one and the same.

      Your rationale for supporting particular entities is also a bit daft. You offer support by virtue of geographical proximity? What if your neighbour's a real bad egg?

  3. Hear what both Ryan & Daniel are saying.

    As a (Lapsed) protest-ant, my views are entirely based on my political allegiances.
    Which, perhaps surprisingly, means I'd support Ireland over Britain.
    Not so much that I'd wish the latter's athletes 'bad', just I get heartily sick of the associated media and jingoistic hype.

    Which seems to be exacerbated by unionist types throughout Britain, not least those just in the North.
    Which heightens this hype 'effect'.

    Whilst people like my sometime friend, who keeps claiming that 'Team NI' won however many medals is fanciful in the extreme.
    As the atheletes 'belong' to Britain or Ireland respectively.