How the Zika virus put paid to a unique chance to move on from vexed issue of flags and emblems
Published 23/06/2016 | 02:30
The decision of Rory McIlory to pull out of representing Ireland at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly on health reasons, is not just a blow to golf and sports fans but also to those of us who'd like a moving on from contentious flags and emblems on the island of Ireland. And in both islands - yes, even in the week of a Brexit vote!
Granted, we must accept that McIlroy's reason for withdrawal is his legitimate concern about the threat of the Zika virus in Rio, despite the reassurances of Olympic officials. However, there will be those who will still be convinced that politics might have played a part.
McIlroy is from Northern Ireland and is very proud of his specific Northern Irish heritage, scorning the flag-waving elements of both communities. He epitomises the new post-Troubles North, which out of a sense of alienation from both Britain and the South has learned to stand on its own feet and enjoy its own shared heritage and success, especially at sport, at which it has excelled: George Best, Danny Blanchflower, Dennis Taylor and Alex Higgins. The list is long, and all of these were proud of their Northern Irish background, even more so as it was in contrast to the world-view of the North as violent and divided.
McIlroy was in the same situation and has said that, due to the way he grew up, he feels he has more in common with the UK than with the Republic of Ireland. This is fair enough, and also stating the obvious. There are very many Irish people, living in the South, who feel they have more in common with British culture than with any official Irish culture, such as speaking our first official language.
Every day, we see people reading English newspapers, following British news and following British football clubs, so let's get beyond this unrealistic, tokenistic attachment to myths and symbols.
However, this sharing of culture and national representation cuts both ways and McIlroy had signed up to represent Ireland at the Olympics. This would say that he was an Irish golfer, as well as a Northern Irish golfer and even, if he wished, a British golfer.
He would stand for the 'Soldier's Song', just as he stood for 'God Save the Queen' and he would play, and possibly win, a gold medal that could be enjoyed by both parts of Ireland.
How amazing that would be - and by a man who embodies the new Ireland of shared identities.
After all, the Irish Olympic team has always had an all-Ireland basis. It is 'a la carte' admittedly, and not as strictly island-wide as our rugby and hockey codes, but it does offer the chance for Irish from the North, often from a Protestant unionist background, to participate for us in the Olympics. So it's not as if McIlroy was being asked to play with a tricolour hanging from his back.
This is just as well, for there is nothing worse than political opportunists jumping on sport and trying to use it for their tribal or nationalist ends. Like the moaners who believe the Irish rugby team should only stand for the Irish national anthem and should drop 'Ireland's Call', even though they know that the latter is there to accommodate the supporters and players of Ulster rugby, who come from a different tradition. ('Ireland's Call' is also a better and more rousing tune).
These curmudgeons do not have the best interests of rugby, or Ireland, at heart. It is like the so-called patriots who once criticised Sonia O'Sullivan for not carrying a tricolour on her lap of honour. If she doesn't want to, it's her business.
However, with McIlroy and the Olympics, there are those who will argue that it is different. He signed up to represent us - all of us - and was reared with Irish State funding.
He has also left it very late to withdraw. Many other athletes are travelling to the Olympics.
Rory has spent a lot of time watching the Northern Ireland soccer team. Many of us Southerners now cheer on the North, as well as the Republic, and are relieved to see far fewer Union Jacks and sectarian banners than we used to whenever 'Norn Iron' played.
Things have moved on. Martin McGuinness even attended the North's last Euro 2016 game, to his credit, and has seized upon the chance to move beyond tribalism and honour shared identities. McIlroy's inclusion in the Irish team would have given a great boost to those hoping to turn a page on our past but sadly the Zika virus has proven to be a fly in the ointment.
Another time perhaps.