John Dolan: It’s not mature, factual or fair to deny the very existence of a Northern Ireland

John Dolan felt our 80-year-old head of state came across as immature in his recent actions, when he refused an invitation to an event marking the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland
John Dolan: It’s not mature, factual or fair to deny the very existence of a Northern Ireland

President Michael D Higgins. Picture: Maxwells

IF you’re reading this any time between 1.05pm today and 12.30am tomorrow, I can guarantee you I will be glued to my armchair, watching the finest one-off match in world sport: The Ryder Cup.

The biennial face-off between 12 players from the USA and 12 from Europe makes for three days of intense rivalry, tension, drama, passion, and skill.

There is Irish interest too. The European captain this year is Padraig Harrington, and the team includes Shane Lowry in its ranks. Half the team is made up of Englishmen, with two Spaniards, a Norwegian and an Austrian.

But the best player in Europe’s ranks, its talisman, its most skilful asset, doesn’t come from anywhere apparently, according to what appears to be a sizeable majority of people in the Republic of Ireland (if that term is not too upsetting to your sensibilities).

Rory McIlroy is an interesting counterpoint to the undignified outcry that met the perfectly reasonable request last week for the President of Ireland to attend an event to mark the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland.

To the chagrin of many across this island, and indeed the UK, McIlroy is a bit of a conundrum: a Catholic who identifies solely as a Northern Irishman and dislikes flag-waving of any kind.

In a binary world fuelled by social media, he is indifferent to both the Irish and British flags. Nor is this a political statement, it is merely a fact of his life.

McIlroy was just nine years old when the Good Friday Agreement brought an end to decades of terrorism, death and misery in Northern Ireland. The place he grew up in, Holywood, largely escaped the worst of the troubles.

The golfing prodigy had the good fortune to grow up in the right place at the right time. Little wonder that he wasn’t prepared for the loaded questions that greeted him from the media when he exploded onto the world sporting scene, and Britain and Ireland tried to claim him as their own.

In the early days, he said he felt more British than Irish, which didn’t go down well here, especially because the Golfing Union of Ireland which reared him covers the entire island.

Rory McIlroy is from Northern Ireland. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy is from Northern Ireland. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

McIlroy is an honest guy and tried to explain the roots of his identity, but he soon found he couldn’t win. Literally.

In 2016, he decided to sit out the Olympics in Rio, and shelve his dream of winning gold, simply because it would have meant declaring for Great Britain or Ireland and, in his words, “p***ing someone off”.

He was once asked straight out if he considered himself more Irish or British. “Pass,” he replied.

Another time he simply said: “Not everyone is driven by nationalism and patriotism.”

If only that were true of the rest of the people on this island, including our own President.

So, if Europe win the Ryder Cup tomorrow, expect to see Rory in amongst the fray, waving the only emblem that matters a jot to him: The Northern Irish flag.

I know many of you will disagree with me when I say this, but to deny McIlroy - and a heck of a lot of the younger people of Northern Ireland in particular - the legitimacy of their own country, as President Michael D. Higgins did last week, strikes me as immature, unfair and a brazen denial of the facts.

Let’s examine the invitation that Mr Higgins snubbed - and yes, I think that is the right word to use. It was for an interdenominational event - not a celebration - “a service of reflection and hope, to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland”.

It would be fair to say that for many on this island, any ‘reflection’ would involve dwelling on the pain and suffering of much of the past century, as a result of that partition. And it would also be fair to say the ‘hope’ for many would involve a united Ireland emerging at some time in the not too distant future.

It is fine for our President to think and say those things too, but to turn down such an invitation on the grounds it is a ‘celebration’ of partition, when it clearly isn’t, was a mistake.

Dare I say it, but I felt our 80-year-old head of state came across as immature in his actions.

He then churlishly railed against a DUP description of him as ‘President of the Republic of Ireland’, when he is President of Ireland, again implicitly denying the existence of a Northern state; in fact, signalling to the ordinary folk of the North that he was their unelected representative on earth!

What message did all this send to the likes of Rory McIlroy and other young like-minded people in the North? That their beliefs and identity are irrelevant? That their country doesn’t exist? Or that it does so in a bizarre limboland as it awaits the shangri-la of annexation from the south to fulfil some kind of Celtic scripture?

Given the scoundrels who masquerade as patriots in both the UK and the Republic, and in the North too, who could blame young people living there if they refused to wave either flag?

I despaired when I heard 81% of people in a poll in this country agreed with our President’s stance. Then again, I guess it was a populist gesture, so it garnered the populist response it warranted.

The President is a man who talks constantly about the need for reconcilation on this island - about reaching out to minorities, about the need for healing on all sides - and then he drives a giant wedge through it at a time of great instability because of Brexit, by snubbing a church service agreed by all denominations!

For those wishing Northern Ireland away, here are some facts you might find unpalatable..

Almost 100 years ago, On January 7, 1922, Dáil Éireann voted by 64 votes to 57 to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty which would confirm Ireland as a Free State but would leave behind six counties in the north: Fermanagh, Armagh, Derry, Tyrone, Antrim and Down.

One of our greatest patriots, Michael Collins, was among those 64. Yes, he knew there was unfinished business, and argued that the Treaty “gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire... but the freedom to achieve it”.

After a savage Civil War, the side which had agreed to leave behind the six counties emerged victorious.

Then, in 1998, almost 95% of people in the Republic backed the Good Friday Agreement in a referendum which enabled the establishment of shared political institutions between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Yes, Northern Ireland. Right there.

We in the south helped to create Northern Ireland, just as Britain did. We need to own those decisions made by the Dáil and by the people of the Republic.

If the peaceful unity of this country is the aim of most of our politicians and our people, including our President, then last week’s childish gesture was a funny way of showing it.

Michael D. Higgins may have gained some personal satisfaction out of putting it up to his former political foe Richard Bruton and those perennial naysayers in the DUP, but in doing so he needlessly damaged relations and caused a diplomatic row. Worse, his intemperate, grandstanding response was also putting it up to all the ordinary folk of the North, people like Rory McIlroy.

In shooting himself in the foot, he shot Ireland in the foot. It was a step backwards for hopes of unity.

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