Northern Ireland’s sporting heroes are representing a new generation

Photo Source: Irish FA

By Graham Gillespie

Ever since the fateful Brexit vote which saw the people of the United Kingdom deciding to collectively shoot themselves in the foot and leave the EU, there has been much discussion on the future of Northern Ireland. Just last week my university passed a motion stating it would support reunification of the island calling for a referendum to be held on the issue.

The holding of this referendum in the first place is slightly bizarre considering that any decision on reunification would firstly have to be made by the residents of the six counties themselves before any referendum could be held in the south. The fact that last year a BBC survey stated that only one third of the Northern Irish public agreed with Sinn Fein’s call for a border poll suggests that demand for such a vote is quite low. Due to this I don’t understand why the NUIG students’ union felt the need to hold this referendum which in effect is telling citizens of another country what to do. One could imagine the outrage if roles were reversed and Queens University held a similar vote on whether the Republic should re-join the union.

Although it must be admitted that politics is still divided along sectarian lines as seen with the unionist DUP and nationalist Sinn Fein claiming nearly the exact same number of seats in the recent election, sport in Northern Ireland tells a different story about life in the country in 2017. In a country that has struggled to find its own unique identity due to many of its traditions being complexly intertwined with the traditions of both Ireland and Great Britain, the Northern Irish national team were often a microcosm of a fractured confused region. Despite a catholic in Martin O’Neil captaining the legendary 1982 World Cup side to the second round beating hosts Spain along the way, Windsor Park has not always been a welcoming place for Catholics in the past.

However the Green and White army’s exploits at Euro 2016 in France gave the country a chance to showcase a different side to Northern Ireland detached from the sectarianism of the past. As mentioned in the already linked Irish Times piece, 21% of the population on the most recent census identified as only Northern Irish, and Michael O’Neil’s team has emerged as a symbol for this new Northern Ireland that is developing an identity that incorporates both Catholics and Protestants.

The country’s two biggest current athletes: Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton have also come to represent this new generation. When he was outlining why he didn’t go to the Olympics during his interview with Paul Kimmage, the catholic McIlroy explained how he feels neither British nor Irish “if I had been on the podium [at the Olympics] (listening) to the Irish national anthem as that flag went up, or the British national anthem as that flag went up, I would have felt uncomfortable either way” he commented, perhaps echoing the thoughts of many young people in the North.

On the other side of the traditional religious divide, Carl Frampton has similarly shattered stereotypes being married to a catholic and indeed managed and coached by the catholic father-son combo of Barry and Shane McGuigan. Taking this into consideration it is no surprise that “the Jackal” is fervently supported by both communities. “In boxing we’re allowed to come together” Frampton explained speaking to Donald McRae. The same can be said for sport in general and working together is a better option than calling for border polls that would only divide once more.

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