On the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, our sports stars lead the way in generating a shared pride in Northern Ireland.
The role of the Good Friday Agreement in creating peace in Northern Ireland can never be overstated. For young people today, its power can be hard to grasp, but it exists in the everyday life around us.
It’s natural, however, to use the twentieth anniversary of such an historical event not only to look at what it achieved, but also at what more can be done.
It’s not a criticism of the Good Friday Agreement to say that in the peace that has existed since, there hasn’t been a great sense of a shared national identity in Northern Ireland. This is why despite the incredible success of the agreement (there were nearly 1,500 deaths in The Troubles in the twenty years before it, and fewer than 150 victims of conflict-related violence in the time since), it's a common comment that while the Good Friday Agreement treated the symptom of The Troubles, it didn't heal the illness of sectarianism that caused them.
Creating some sort of shared national identity in Northern Ireland was impossible in the past, is difficult now, and will continue to be a challenge in the future. With two major political parties that hold such strong ideological views on what they think Northern Ireland should be, it can often feel like what it actually is now is let fall by the wayside, with all thought of enhancing the identity of Northern Ireland in its current form being left behind.
As such, endeavours and successes have come away from politics, through the arts, community initiatives, the way that individuals choose to live their own lives, and, in many notable cases, in sport.
Representing the whole of Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland's greatest active sportsperson is Rory McIlroy, and although he isn’t universally loved and adored, as a sportsman he has managed to build his success in a way where it transmits to all corners of Northern Ireland. Despite originally deciding to represent Ireland at Rio 2016, McIlroy pulled out because he said he was worried about the Zika virus, and since then, in an interview with BBC Sport, he has suggested that he won’t pin his allegiances to either Ireland or Team GB again.
‘I’m a very conflicted person, and not a lot of people understand that maybe, but it’s the way I feel,' McIlroy said. 'More likely than not I won’t be going to the games in 2020 because of my personal feelings…for me it’s just something I don’t want to get into.’
Only McIlroy will know the exact reasons behind his decisions: perhaps more of an unwillingness to divide his own audience than a deliberate attempt to unite a population; and maybe more a lack of one definitive national identity than an indecision between two. Yet either way his decision was significant, because when he represents Northern Ireland on a global stage as one of the biggest and best in his chosen sport, he is depicting an image of Northern Ireland as a whole, and these images are all too rare.
McIlroy is by no means the first Northern Ireland sports star to leave behind politics and religion in order to become a truly national symbol. In George Best Northern Ireland once boasted one of the greatest footballers on the planet, and when it came to his death, the country was united in grief. His funeral was a large state-like affair, where tens of thousands of people lined the streets and the Stormont estate in a nation-wide outpouring of grief. When it came to the service, the Best family insisted that it be a non-religious affair, and led by TV personality Eamon Holmes, the service, like the man it celebrated, united the country: Protestants and Catholics standing side by side, a final gift from a man to a City that loved him.
Barry McGuigan's career took on most significance in Northern Ireland, where people from different religious and political backgrounds were united in support of him.
Elsewhere, boxing has continued to breed characters that appeal to all corners of Northern Ireland. Barry McGuigan and Carl Frampton have parted ways in recent times, but continue to have a lot in common, with McGuigan having formerly said, ‘Carl is doing what I did. He's a beacon for peace and reconciliation and represents the future of Northern Ireland.’
McGuigan was from the Republic of Ireland, but his career took on most significance in Northern Ireland, where during the troubles people from different religious and political backgrounds were united in support of him. He was known for wearing a Dove on his short as a symbol of peace, and didn’t play a national anthem at his fights. With a large fan base coming from all cultures and backgrounds across Northern Ireland, Frampton is aiming for a similar legacy to his former manager.
That these sport stars have to actively resist certain identities and allegiances is a sign that Northern Ireland still has a long way to go in the process of turning a peaceful country into a fully united society fit for flourishing; but in many ways our sports stars lead the way in this transition, not only giving us plenty to be proud of, but showing how we as a population can be united in that pride.
On the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we can hope that in the next twenty years, Northern Ireland can continue to grow and give its population more to be united in pride about.