In Northern Ireland we can celebrate Graeme McDowell’s heroics at Pebble Beach without ambivalence. However, his achievements have been accompanied elsewhere by a degree of confusion as to whether the Portrush golfer should be considered British or Irish.
Indeed the Belfast Telegraph’s southern sister paper, the Irish Independent, rather ungraciously accused the UK media of claiming the new US Open champion, under false pretences. McDowell’s coach, it pointed out, like the man himself, says that he is Irish. So that, it would seem, is that.
Except, of course, that it isn‘t. National identities are not so impermeable or easily reducible. Possession of one does not exclude holding another. In this part of the world we have a head start in understanding how complex a concept nationality can be.
McDowell, like many other sportspeople from Northern Ireland, wears his identity (or identities) lightly. Asked whether he would prefer to be included in the British or Irish teams, when golf makes its debut at the 2016 Olympics, the player responded, “it’d be an honour to represent your country and I don’t mind which one I play for”.
It’s a pragmatic answer, because McDowell is just keen to play at the tournament, but it also suggests an attitude to nationality which is typically Northern Irish, and by no means confused or unhealthy. The golfer considers himself British and Irish, and he sees no contradiction between the two.
Golf, like rugby, is organised on an all-island basis. McDowell has competed for Ireland alongside fellow Ulsterman, Rory McIlroy and players from the Republic, like Padraig Harrington. His nationality in team golf has not been an issue up to this point.
Olympic selection complicates matters, because, strictly speaking, Team GB is drawn from the whole of the United Kingdom and the Irish team represents the Republic of Ireland. Sportsmen and women here can be included in either squad, because southern Irish citizenship is offered extra-territorially to people in Northern Ireland.
An individual athlete will most probably make their personal decision based on a range of factors, such as the likelihood of selection or whether their sport has an all-Ireland set-up and culture. Political allegiance could have an influence, although it is usually well down the list of priorities. It is a subjective judgement and every sportsperson’s considerations will be different.
Unlike McDowell, Rory McIlroy has expressed an Olympic preference. He holds a British passport, and he would rather play for Great Britain. The rugby player Andrew Trimble, whose sport is also set to be included in Rio 2016, has declared for Ireland. He plays all his international rugby for Irish teams and can’t imagine representing someone else.
Both players’ choices make perfect sense, but for the most part, whether sports are organised on an all-Ireland basis, or whether there’s a separate Northern Ireland team, no such decision is necessary. McIlroy and McDowell performed impressively in the 2009 Golf World Cup in China, where Ireland finished runners-up to Italy.
Trevor Ringland proudly competed in an Irish rugby jersey, despite an allegiance to the United Kingdom which would eventually lead him into unionist politics. Footballers from across the community, whether they hold British or Irish passports, have traditionally worn the green and white shirt of Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.
Golf actually reflects rather well the various layers which can make up a Northern Irish identity. McDowell competes on the European Tour as a player from Northern Ireland. He played in a Walker Cup representing Great Britain and Ireland. And this year he will form part of the European Ryder Cup team.
The belief is widespread in non-English UK nations that the London media calls sportsmen and women ’British’ only when they are successful. Following defeats they are identified as Irish, Scottish or Welsh. That perception might be based on a grain of truth, but it is also sustained by a vat of hypersensitivity.
I doubt Graeme McDowell will be too precious about sharing the feel good factor from his achievements . We should take an equally generous attitude, and cherish an identity which allows the US Open champion to be celebrated in London and Dublin, as well as Portrush and Belfast.