Over the past year three Northern Irish golfers – Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke – have put our little region firmly on the global sporting map by winning the world’s two greatest golf tournaments: the US Open (for two years running) and the British Open. This extraordinary feat is wonderfully cheering for two reasons that have little to do with golf: firstly because it is great for regional morale when our sporting, musical and literary heroes make international headlines for all the right reasons – brilliant skills, huge dedication, sheer top-of-the-world talent. During the ‘troubles’ it was such a relief when the likes of Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison, George Best and Alex Higgins (an unlikely ambassadorial foursome!) made Northern Ireland known for other reasons than car bombs and hunger strikes and internment and Protestants and Catholics killing each other.
The second reason I like this threesome – while having little interest in their game – is that as a person with (unfortunately) well-developed sectarian antennae, I can’t for the life of me work out which ‘foot they dig with’. When somebody asked me in the pub the other night, I got two out of three of them wrong!
This set me thinking about a notion I have raised more than once in this column: the advantages of being Northern Irish and thus being able to claim both a British and an Irish identity. It is easy for the Dublin media to treat McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke as Irish heroes, as indeed they are. However more than one of them probably carries a British passport, and they make their (extremely good) livings mainly in Europe and North America. They live in the best of both worlds.They are the embodiment of the poet John Hewitt’s plea that he should be treated as an Ulsterman, and as Irish, British and European – leave out one element and you are doing the man’s identity some harm.
We lucky people of Northern Ireland have a choice of two identities and citizenships, and this good fortune was formally enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. For those of us who relish our duality, this is messy but rewarding, and we can hop from one to the other whenever we please. The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (a joint project by Queen’s University Belfast and University of Ulster) in June showed how we do it: just 33% of Northern Catholics told the pollsters they wanted Irish unity in the long-term (a view shared by only 1% of Northern Protestants, although 82% said they could accept it with some reluctance if it came about after a democratic vote). 52% of Catholics, the great majority certainly Sinn Fein and SDLP voters, said they would prefer to stay in the UK. Talk about having your cake and eating it – we Ulster folk make ambivalence into an art form!
In his speech to mark the restoration of power-sharing in 2007, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness approvingly quoted Seamus Heaney saying that we needed to move beyond talking about ‘the other side’ and get to a place of ‘through-otherness’ (a peculiarly Northern word meaning untidiness). In a 2001 lecture in Aberdeen Heaney, talking about the poet and clergyman W.R.Rodgers (who put the term into literature in a poem about Armagh), said: ‘There is something analogous to the triple heritage of Irish, Scottish and English traditions that compound and complicate the cultural and political life of contemporary Ulster’. For Rodgers it had not been ‘a question of the otherness of any part of his inheritance, more a recognition of the through-otherness of all of them.’
Like most good things in Northern Ireland (courtesy of that other great Derry man, John Hume), ‘through-otherness’ has an internal, a North-South and an East-West dimension. Sticking to sport for the moment, the North-South dimension is rugby supporters having to sing Ireland’s Call before Amhrán na bhFiann and (I would suggest) soccer supporters having to oppose the FAI’s attempts to poach only northern Catholic players for the Republic of Ireland team. Being an Irish-British or British-Irish champion – Eoin Morgan captaining the English cricket team; Barry McGuigan winning a British boxing title; Tony McCoy and Kieren Fallon becoming Champion Jockey – makes for a thoroughly healthy and normal East-West ‘through-otherness’. The success of Ballyfermot woman Mary Byrne on the X Factor and of the Queen’s visit to Ireland in May (and particularly to ‘rebel’ Cork) were other recent triumphs for this trí na chéile – ‘things mixed up among themselves’ – to use Heaney’s definition.
This close, mutually dependent cross-border inter-connectedness between North and South, Ireland and Britain, is there more than ever in the post Good Friday Agreement ‘new Ireland’. It will be continue to be there as the two countries try to find mutually beneficial positions vis-a-vis the financial meltdown that the European Union is currently wrestling with, and looming problems of energy shortages and climate change. We should welcome and celebrate it.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.