Having just sealed his third PGA Tour victory in a little under a month and, in the process, consolidated his place at the summit of the world rankings, Rory McIlroy began yesterday evening’s press commitments at the BMW Championship in ebullient mood.
He ended the evening very differently, however, conscious only of having made an inelegant PR misstep in permitting a headline-grabbing controversy to materialise out of thin air (or hot air, if we’re to give the populist rhetoric that oft surrounds the question of Rory’s nationality its due).
It began with the Daily Mail, when golf correspondent Derek Lawrenson published an interview titled ‘EXCLUSIVE: Team GB in Rio? Rory McIlroy says he owes a lot to Irish golf fans but feels more British‘ (it appeared online as the final round rumbled towards its inevitable, slightly muted conclusion), wherein the 23-year-old answered a number of probing questions absent the circumspection and ambiguity that has tended to characterise his pronouncements on heritage and nationalism:
“What makes it such an awful position to be in is I have grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella. But the fact is, I’ve always felt more British than Irish.”
“Maybe it was the way I was brought up, I don’t know, but I have always felt more of a connection with the UK than with Ireland. And so I have to weigh that up against the fact that I’ve always played for Ireland and so it is tough. Whatever I do, I know my decision is going to upset some people but I just hope the vast majority will understand.”
From there it only gathered momentum, eventually reaching critical mass (check out the comments thread on this beauty) in the hours after the Northerner departed Crooked Stick.
McIlroy has since used his Twitter account to publish an open letter in which he makes it clear a final decision regarding his Olympic allegiance has yet to be reached.
That said, both documents suggest the Republic is fighting a losing battle for the 23-year-old’s sporting and political conscience.
“I am… a proud Ulsterman who grew up in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. That is my background and always will be.”
If that is indeed the case, and Rory is moving delicately towards a more explicit declaration of his Northern (and, by extension, British) allegiance, he’s on the brink of making a profoundly brave and inherently progressive political statement.
Here comes the history…
To understand quite why that is, it’s worth taking stock of a few historical truths:
Since the partition of Ireland nearly a century ago, when the island was divided into two distinct political entities, the question of Northern cultural identity has hinged nearly exclusively on the question of the religious orientation.
To be Catholic was, a few noteworthy exceptions aside, to be both a member of a societal underclass, one kept firmly in place by an elaborate system of sectarian apartheid, and a sympathiser with the cultural and political goals of the South, primarily the assimilation of the North’s six counties.
By contrast, Protestant identity was defined by a trenchant, even feverish, commitment to union with Great Britain. Fear of impoverishment and disenfranchisement, of being thrown at the feet of a newly assertive Catholic administration — deserted, effectively — informed governance at every level.
The conflict between these competing worldviews assumed a horrific dimension in the 1960s with the re-emergence of the IRA, the formation of the UVF and the birth of a all-encompassing paramilitary subculture. Sectarian violence and tragedy became facts of life.
Car bombings and assassinations aside, it fell to ordinary citizens of urban centres like Belfast and Derry (or Londonderry… see how confusing this can get?) to negotiate a growing and potentially lethal semantic minefield.
My uncle speaks, for example, about living in Belfast at the height of The Troubles (you’ll note the Northern taste for euphemism) and being forced, on nights out, to hesitate in responding to even the most straightforward questions, to counter banal enquiries — What’s your name? Where are you from? — with elaborate mental gymnastics.
Is this a predominantly Catholic or Protestant area? Who is asking the question? Do they have an agenda? Do their friends?
Today, the most gruesome excesses of the Troubles are receding into the distant past and the paramilitary organisations that governed the North by fear and political proxy endure primarily as shadows of their former selves, criminal gangs given over to drug deals and flaccid shows of strength.
Rioting and marching persist, of course, but they’re increasingly considered displays of social maladjustment, products of poverty and frustration rather than expressions of an immediate political goal.
That said, political life, the business of governing the North, is still determined by the same divisions, though the parties are now more pragmatic; they work in tandem to assuage their constituents’ inveterate fear of the Other.
… and back to the golf.
And so we return to Rory McIlroy, whose rumoured intention to represent Great Britain appears to sit in awkward contrast to both his Catholic heritage and family history (the Northerner’s great-uncle was murdered by Loyalist militants in 1972).
But Northern society is no longer quite so in thrall of reductive labels and sectarian tradition. For someone like McIlroy, young enough to remember little of the peace process, sheltered enough to know little of rioting, The Troubles sit at a remote distance, an amorphous and cloudy anachronism.
He is part of the first generation to self-identify as Northern Irish (a trend touched upon in this recent feature) and, in demonstrating a willingness, however tentative, to chart a course independent of the ideologies that have determined life in the six counties for nigh-on a century, he’s emerged an improbable spokesperson for a nascent political, or “post-political”, identity.
Precariously balanced between two contrasting identities, McIlroy has repeatedly asserted his right to a third option: a Northern-ness that supersedes all else, of which being British is a logical consequence rather than a matter of faith.
Yes, he’s availed of opportunities afforded him as a teenager by the Golfing Union of Ireland, but the issue of national allegiance, when forced, will hardly be decided by so trivial a matter as junior funding.
It could even be argued, quite sensibly, that an insistence on representing the Republic, metaphorically embracing the tricolour as it were, should it suddenly emerge in the months or years to come, would constitute a troubling regression to the dichotomies and prejudices of yore.
It’s a path certain to provoke outbursts from ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum, but I hope to see the world No1 persist upon the road less travelled.