Monday, 13 June 2016

Reality check: half of us don't actually support Northern Ireland

 While there has been any amount of bon homie surrounding the Euros - England and Russia excepted - it seems, well, unsporting to drag politics into it it. But sure here goes…

A journalist colleague carried out a vox pop on the streets of Enniskillen recently to establish which Irish team local people would be supporting in the Euros.  One  randomer declined to comment other than to say "I'm not really into politics". Which says it all really.

The BBC tried to have a bit of craic  posting on Facebook a kind of bluffer's guide to the two Irish teams explaining, with what the BBC thinks passes for humour, why there are two national football teams in this country, I mean island.

But amid all this hilarity nobody in the BBC - or anywhere else in the media that I can see - is prepared to even as much as allude to the blindingly obvious, that almost half the population here is, at best, ambivalent about the so-called national team.

To tune into the BBC or read the pages of the Belfast Telegraph or the Irish Times you would be forgiven for thinking that clubs and pubs from west Belfast to east Tyrone were heaving with lads rooting for Northern Ireland in their opener against Poland. Or that GAA fans were rallying home from the Fermanagh game in Ballybofey to catch their national team in action in Nice, when that was clearly not the case.

I can understand why unionists might  feel a deeply held sense of  hurt that their Catholic neighbours don't support the place they live in, but anyone who believes that  sorting out a few details like the flag and the anthem would make it all alright is missing the point entirely.

Whatever about polls in the Belfast Telegraph it is a given that most nationalists here identify themselves as Irish.  We know this because those who bother to vote vote mainly for Sinn Fein, and the rest by and large for the SDLP, both parties who define themselves in all-Ireland terms.

Like it or not national teams and national identity go hand in hand - which is precisely why most Catholics won't be weighing in behind the Green and White Army in any great numbers any time soon. That Northern Ireland presumes to represent them makes matters so much worse.

I'm maybe pushing the analogy a little, but you wouldn't get annoyed if your average Kosavar Albanian had an issue with supporting Serbia. Nor would you be terribly surprised if a Protestant from, say Ballyclare, didn't give a toss one way or the other how the Antrim hurlers did in the Christy Ring.

Not that I entirely get northern Catholics supporting the Republic. Maybe it's because they really don't have a lot of choice. There may even - God forbid -  be a bit of wilful spite in the mix, but supporting a team the bulk of whose supporters reckon you shouldn't be supporting them doesn't make a lot of sense either.