Thursday 21 September 2017

No national flags please . . . we're Irish

Using all-embracing GUI emblem can remove groundless 'North/South' concept from game

The apolitical 'Four Provinces' flag
The apolitical 'Four Provinces' flag

Karl MacGinty

RORY McILROY is caught between the shamrock and a hard place when it comes to Rio 2016 but the Ulsterman's Olympic quandary at least has brought the ever-thorny Irish issue with flags to world attention.

So much so, the International Golf Federation (IGF) recently contacted the GUI and ILGU to enquire which flag they should use alongside the name of Irish players, male and female, in the world amateur golf rankings.

The inspired suggestion they received from GUI general secretary Pat Finn and ILGU chief executive Sinead Heraty offered a solution.

Finn and Heraty recommended the all-embracing and apolitical 'Four Provinces' flag, which is used by both organisations and best expresses the all-island structure and administration of golf in Ireland.

Though the sport receives funding from Leinster House and Stormont, there is no Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland in golf... the GUI and ILGU existed long before partition and, like rugby, boxing and other codes, has no political axe to grind.

Of course, a glance at professional tournament scoreboards would lead one to think otherwise as tricolours and Northern Ireland colours abound.

Necessary

The latter was introduced as a necessary flag of convenience by the European Tour at the height of the Troubles, to spare members from the North and their families back home from any backlash that playing 'under the tricolour' might bring.

This practice became so well established that professional bodies all around the world adopted it. For example, the two flags fly at PGA Tour events and Majors, leading most people on the planet to the inevitable and erroneous conclusion that Northern Ireland and the Republic are separate entities in golf.

This, of course, offers grave disservice to the men and women who continue to operate the structures which have helped Irish golf produce Major champions like McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington. Or hugely talented amateurs like Stephanie Meadow and Leona and Lisa Maguire.

While there is absolutely no suggestion of or appetite for partition within the sport, clearly it is not in the best interests of golf on this island, long-term, for the groundless concept of 'North' and 'South' to become deeply ingrained in public consciousness.

It's not often international bodies grasp the subtle nuances of the Irish question. I remember a senior official involved in the staging of golf's World Cup calling in a panic days before the 2011 event at Mission Hills in China to ask what anthem should they play if McIlroy and McDowell won.

'The Sound of Silence', perhaps!

Flags weren't mentioned, so it was discomfiting to see the two Ulstermen parade behind the tricolour at the opening ceremony. Pride in our flag and the fine concept it embodies did not salve the feeling that, under certain circumstances, the tricolour is inappropriate.

It certainly makes sense to see Irish golf's 'Four Provinces' flag alongside the names of Meadow, Gavin Moynihan or Dermot McElroy in the current World Amateur Ranking.

The significant point is that the IGF actually thought in the first place to ask which emblem should be used with Irish golfers.

Of course, the IGF is driving golf's return to the Olympic Arena in 2016 and their determination that marquee players like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and McIlroy tee it up in Rio is making those in world golf's corridors of power more acutely aware of Irish sensitivities.

For example, IGF president Peter Dawson made a noble effort in May to ease pressure on McIlroy and McDowell with the suggestion that representing a nation at a recognised world championship, like the Eisenhower Trophy or World Cup, might bind a player to that country.

Of course, McIlroy dismissed this helpful gesture by saying the choice of playing for Team GB or Ireland in Rio is his. As a dual-citizen, the 24-year-old legally is entitled to opt for either side or none at all and to expect his decision to be respected.

The Ireland-Northern Ireland-Great Britain circle cannot be squared at the Olympics as long as the Games derive so much financial and political clout from flag-waving.

Still, it was the common sense decision by the GUI and ILGU to offer the 'Four Provinces' emblem as the standard of Irish golf and golfers hopefully will receive more widespread recognition in the international arena.

Remember, all the leading pro Tours and organisations are members of the IGF, while president Dawson also is chief executive of the sport's world ruling body, the R&A.

Hopefully, for the long-term good of the sport, something great will grow from this little acorn.

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