Golf shows the way to ‘through-otherness’

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

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.