How Would Rory McIlroy Vote?  And why that’s important.

336px-Rory_McIlroy_watches_drive_flight_(portrait_orientation)Predicated as it is on avarice and greed and standing as a monument to the necessity for mandatory wealth re-distribution, the most useless supplement of the year reappeared last week.

The Sunday Times Rich List likes to rank all the people in the country who have more money than you. And expects you to pay for the privilege of reading about them.

Not surprisingly, a certain young County Down sports celebrity –always keen to reassert his affinity with his place of birth – appeared near the top of the list.

And this got thinking me about whether Rory still has a vote in the Northern Ireland elections and if so…then who would he vote for?

To be sure, Master McIlroy would not constitute a typical Holywood resident. But given his ‘rags to riches’ journey and lower middle class catholic origins, the SDLP might consider themselves a shoe-in for his ‘X’.  Alliance too, might feel confident of his support.

Of course, not all Protestants are Unionist in their political outlook and Loyalist in their Monarchist support. Similarly, not all Catholics are Republican or have Nationalist aspirations.

Yet we know that the tendency for commentators and observers to lazily group the two main traditions in Northern Ireland into convenient, homogenous blocs, contributes to the recurring impasse of two-party rule by reinforcing these stereotypes.

Such speculation regarding Rory McIlroy’s political allegiances is hardly uncommon conjecture. And given his past experiences you can bet that he wouldn’t be answering questions of this nature, in the unlikely event that someone from the press actually asked him.

He has learned the hard way.

In  2012, this young, mild-mannered – lower middle class, Controlled Grammar school educated – County Down man, (Roman Catholic by religion for those interested in such matters) inadvertently reminded us of the depth of significance that the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland still place on national and cultural allegiance. In a wide-ranging interview with Sportsmail, the then 23-year-old – whose Northern Irish roots made him eligible for both British and Irish representation – had spoken candidly about this dilemma.

“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.”

Whether his aspiration to empathy was realised is a matter for conjecture.

However, for a significant number of opinion formers in the media and on social networking sites, they most assuredly did not understand. And golfing superstar Rory McIlroy learned a salutary lesson in regard to the place that sports and cultural allegiance hold in the collective national psyches of both traditions in Ireland, North and South and within Great Britain.

What was perhaps most depressing about the subsequent outpouring of vitriol, jingoistic tub-thumping and rash editorial comment, was the unforgivably thoughtless filicide of a new and emerging post-conflict generation in Northern Ireland. One uncomfortable with the traditional religio-political stereo-types foisted upon them and refreshingly honest in their opinions based on their own lived experiences.

McIlroy enjoyed a largely middle-class upbringing, provided by the herculean efforts of his working class parents, who sought to create a non-sectarian environment for themselves and their son. Enjoying a religiously mixed social and educational setting and growing up in an area relatively free from social unrest, ensured that young Rory was able to take pleasure in the interests and enthusiasm of his peers.

Supporting the Ulster Rugby team, following Manchester United, representing Ireland in his chosen field – whilst declaring for team GB in the golfing Olympics [1]  – were all passions that he pursued without the encumbrance of believing that he had to belong to one side or the other.

Rather than lamenting him for his political naïveté, the popular and sporting press should have been lauding him as the successful face of an emerging, post conflict Northern Ireland. Someone who fought shy of the minefield of nation statehood and undoubtedly saw himself as first and foremost, Northern Irish.

But this is not a designation that is easily accepted by Nationalists/Republicans, refusing as they do to recognise the artificially constructed ‘statelet’ of Northern Ireland. (Despite accepting political office in its governmental institutions).

Living and working in the Irish Republic for some twenty plus years now, I was appalled at the irresponsibility of journalists, broadcasters, social commentators and casual acquaintances alike, who decried McIlroy for daring to describe himself as  ‘British’ and declaring for ‘them’.

The incident was a timely reminder of how the whole panoply of representative life on this island remains mired within the history and perceived culture of the two main traditions. And how ‘ownership’ of successful high profile individuals and their achievements can be used as a celebration or affirmation of national and community identity.

In short, Rory…don’t open those postal ballot papers. You’re well out of it in Florida!

Dr Thomas Paul Burgess is Senior Lecturer at the School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork. His new novel ‘White Church, Black Mountain’ is now available. He is also the co-author of ‘The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants‘.

[1]He famously revised this decision and declared for Ireland at a later stage and no doubt in deference to the furore that had emerged.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.