Wednesday 20 November 2019

Nuance never hurt anybody

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

There's always something stirring about seeing Paddy Barnes in action, showing no fear as he wades into the fray. In the ring, the Belfast light-flyweight is defined by a rigorous honesty and that quality was evident last week when he landed a cracking left hook on Olympic Council of Ireland chairman Pat Hickey.

Hickey incurred Barnes' wrath with the comment that were Rory McIlroy to declare for Ireland in the 2016 Olympics, the golfer would "automatically put himself in pole position to carry the tricolour into the stadium in Rio."

The boxer subsequently tweeted, 'I see Pat Hickey crawling to Rory McIlroy about carrying the flag at the next Olympics. What a prick'.

There are many Irish Olympians who would consider it an honour to carry the Irish flag. None need to be coaxed and cajoled into representing this country and some have already done so with great distinction, none more so than Paddy Barnes who is, along with the hammer thrower Pat O'Callaghan, one of only two Irish Olympians to medal at different Games.

If Hickey's suggestion that McIlroy should jump the queue was an insult to our other Olympians in general, it's particularly offensive to not just Barnes but to Irish boxing which, having accounted for over half of our all-time medal tally, is surely entitled to first crack at flag-bearing duties.

I don't care who Rory McIlroy declares for at the next Olympics. He's always been regarded as an Irish golfer but if he wants to represent Great Britain in Rio so be it. He's entitled to do so. In any event, the Olympic golf title will be a pretty meaningless honour whoever wins it. But I'm sure we'll all continue to delight in the exploits of this magnificent sportsman in the Majors.

Personally, I don't see the point of being partitionist about sporting matters. I was delighted to see Northern Ireland get the heroic draw in Portugal which made the Republic's win in the Faroes look like very thin gruel indeed and happy to see two fine young Antrim motorcyclists, Jonathan Rea and Eugene Laverty, continue the wonderful tradition of the likes of Joey Dunlop by finishing fourth and fifth respectively in the World Superbikes Championship.

That Rea represented Britain and Laverty represented Ireland, though their home towns of Larne and Toomebridge are just 25 miles apart, underlines the complex nature of identity on this island but shouldn't be a cause of contention. Neither should the question of McIlroy's choices.

And we should treat the words of both those who call him a traitor and those who suggest all Northern sportsmen should declare themselves as British with equal contempt. A bit of nuance on this issue never does any harm.

The question of McIlroy as potential flag-bearer is much more straightforward which is why it was refreshing to hear Barnes refuse to apologise for his comments about Hickey, declaring, "I've more things to worry about than stupid things like that." In reality, it's Hickey who should apologise.

Don't hold your breath.

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