Are you a bigot?

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Image courtesy of by Press Eye / Maxwells


Former Irish President Mary McAleese said “There is a sediment of sectarianism in all of us if we come from Northern Ireland ”

For me it was one of the most profound and at the same time disturbing observations to confront me. I challenge you to deny it.

We are seeing a lot of this sort of ambivalence and worse being played out right now across Northern Ireland during the Olympics.

I should say Radio Ulster/BBC NI’s coverage of the games has been outstanding from Jim Neilly, Joel Taggart and Winker Watson.

Sport is winning because those charged with editing it and reporting it are not politically driven.

They are remaining objective, dispassionate and are acting thoroughly professionally.

Mindful of what Mary McAleese has said I accept each and everyone of us has to stretch ourselves, bend our minds to embrace sports which are not part of our domain.

I kicked off some controversy with my Twitter postings last week when I asked ‘Am I right in thinking the catholic nationalist community is lukewarm about the success of our local rowers in the Olympics?’

I digested the responses and have been taking the pulse more deeply in the GAA community over the last 5/6 days about the success of the Coleraine rowers. “Nah. Our GAA people wouldn’t be into that – TeamGB stuff” was pretty reflective of opinion.

The GAA community is currently absorbed with the race for Croke Park in September and that is understandable.

I do notice however, when Katie Taylor, John Joe Nevin, Michael Conlan etc are involved in the Olympics, Twitter lights up like a Christmas tree from within the catholic nationalist community.

Lo contrario obtains from what I can seen in the Protestant unionist community. Is there a rash of enthusiasm for TeamIreland in that community? No.

This is a critical time for us all to take a long hard look at ourselves.

If sport fails to lift us out of our narrow bigoted sectarian quagmire, failing to bring us to admire the success of our neighbours’ children starring in the Olympics – then, what does it say about us as a people?

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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. not sure it says that much to be honest eamonn. people in ireland and the north are coming from a very delicate and difficult position within the recent past, 15 to 20 years. these people have very strong beliefs and values about their nationality and who they are i mean that on ‘both sides’. there is still no small amount of fear in the north and i thin k rightly so as being in the wrong place at the wrong time could result in a serious injury, 20 years ago, possibly death or a serious injury. that there is an amount of goodwill and begrudgery in equal measure is not necessairly a bad thing, much better for there to be a well-meaning fair-play rather than a “I hate them f**king b**tards.” locally within soccer or GAA, there is a firerce rivarly between local neighbouring clubs and alot more than begrudgery, open hostility and quite often that is among people who are good friend and family. how does this view fit in amongst the allegiance people here have to different nations/nationalities and the rivalry between neighbouring nations

  2. I don’t agree that it makes you a bigot if you go for one over the other… I do think the Team GB side is harder to access for NI Catholics. And, ironically perhaps, it is not made easier by the teams brand contraction to Great Britain without reference to NI…

    That said, I don’t detect much disaffection from Team Ireland on the Unionist side, not least since there is a long tradition of unionist participation in the Irish Olympic teams… `Steve Martin for instance was a gold medal winning hockey player for GB…

    The real issue for me is the under performance of Team Ireland at the closest to the home games we are ever likely to see in our life times… For which I think the Irish government holds some responsibility…

    And to some extent so does our own Executive… The promises of 3 million for boxing somewhen coming soon (maybe) are political convenient (coming *after* Paddy confirmed his medal), unstrategic and most of all TOO DAMNED LATE!!!

    Horse, stable door, bolted…

  3. I think it very important to relaise the context here, 2 of the 3 Coleraine rowers had rowed for Ireland at junior level, for them it appears that reaching the highest possible level was there number one aim. Rowing is one of those sports that doesnt involve any bigotry whatsoever.
    In response to a previous post i can confirm that within Team GB & NI religous denomination play no part in selection. The only difficulty in anyone gaining selection would logisticial issues that would be encountered in any sport.

  4. Eamonn – tonight at the Olympics I’ve been watching Team Jamaica and Team Kenya – watching in the words of Michael Johnson the two best athletes in the sport.
    He was talking about sprinter Usain Bolt and 800 metres runner David Rudisha who bettered his own two-lap world record with a time of 1.40.91.
    Anthems and flags were no part of the conversation or analysis. It was about performance and times.
    Johnson also highlighted the Bolt influence on others. Jamaica took all three medals in the 200 metres.
    I’m also keeping an eye to the golf and ‘Team Holywood’. Rory McIlroy is well placed on day one of the final Major of the year, and in his home town we are watching how he is influencing and inspiring others.
    Rory Williamson has just become Ulster Boys Champion – and Jessica Carty Irish Girls Champion.
    Success makes more success.
    And this should be our focus – on performance, development, facilities, coaching, equipment, funding and all the other ingredients that help competitors across all sports reach their potential.
    The rowing and boxing at the Olympics – the medals for Coleraine, Belfast and Dublin should all be celebrated, and those who are tasked to do so should be applying their collective thinking to how we build on this.
    Athletes should be judged on performance – not on who they decide to compete for, and those who pick over the latter are usually people who couldn’t run the length of themselves.

    • They’ve long since ceased being settlers. Their ancestors may have been, but they are natives. Just like you.

  5. Dr Francis Teeney on

    Eammon as in most things I think you are mostly right. However I would like to point out a few things people might like to consider. Firstly the rowers – brilliant performance and I am very proud of them. That young lad Campbell nearly died so much did he push himself. What did his sport mean to lads from Clonard, Falls, Andersonstown and Ardoyne – well not much as rowing is not their sport and the nearest open water is too far away. They cannot associate with it and let’s face it rowing is labelled (rightly or wrongly) as a public school boy sport. Dressage and show jumping likewise. personally I love them but maybe I am an oddity.
    Let us about turn. What does the sport of boxing mean to the middle class people of our society. In truth not much. It is a working class sport that is certainly not played at Oxford, Cambridge or Eton. Therefore a Catholic/Protestant divide is too simple and ignores the class factor.
    I do concede that there is an element in Northern Ireland who frown at acknowledging anything Irish or British. This I refer to as ‘fear of dilution’. It comes from a fear factor driven by lack of confidence in ones own identity. That they might be contaminated if they spend time in the ‘other’s’ company or acknowledge the position of the ‘other side’.
    Those who are confident in their own identity have no such problems acknowledging the other side, suffer no fear of dilution or subliminal contamination. But being confident in your own identity sadly is not a panacea for conditioned bigotory. We have as a people been programmed to view the world through a prism set out for us by years of enforced seperation. The enlightened among us know it is wrong and internally fight with it on a regular basis – we try to stretch ourselves towards the ‘other’. We deny the unwanted thought, we attempt to gain the middle ground in our mind with the hope that we can translate it into action. And still every Easter, 12th July, 9th August, Queen’s jubilee we are confronted once again by our demons. We are ashamed of the rioting – but at least we are not ashamed of the rowing and boxing. The problem lies not only with the description of whether it is British or Irish but rather if we can identify with the sport on class grounds or even on grounds of interest.
    Those who deny a congratulations to their fellow countrymen and women on grounds of National affiliation in sport are actually afraid – in fear of contamination and cling to a model of the past that was simple – ‘us and them’. A model they had no choice in devising and were conditioned into by schooling, peer pressure, social seperation and political ‘othering’. They had as much control over this as they had over what class they were born into and what sports were navailable to them in their locality.
    Therein lies the challenge. How do we undo years of internal and social programming. How do we inspire confidence in those with fragile identity and how do we address the class issue in Northern Ireland. Those who deny the class aspect should ask themselves why mostly only working class lads and lassies ended up in prison for political crimes.
    In conclusion, I accept Eamonn Mallie’s concept that bigotory is ingrained in us all. Some of us have chosen to fight the demon internally when really it is a society issue. It is not as simple as ‘us and them’ as other factors such as class, fear of dilution, and conditioning come into play. And I for one am proud of all our sportsmen and women, whatever their class or creed. I hope I win my internal battle for which there is no gold medal – but for some of my fellow citizens there should be.

  6. Wayne William McCullough was an 18yr old boxer from the Shankill Road competing at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He carried the flag of the country he was representing, the Irish flag.
    I like to tell young people about the Pocket Rocket, and let them connect with the analogy that our minds are like parachutes, they dont work unless they are Open…

  7. I think
    there is a confusion of the terms ‘bigotry’ and ‘prejudice’. I’m prejudiced; I
    can’t deny it. I expect most people are, about something or other.
    Maybe they
    have a harmless wee prejudice, say, despising people who ‘get above themselves’
    (“who does he think he is”). But many people quietly nurse bigger and more
    discreditable ‘bêtes noirs’; say, the travelling community (“spongers”), or immigrants (“taking our
    jobs”). In the ‘right’ company, they can let fly.
    Having a
    nice, well-rounded prejudice with a good edge to it, and a smidgen of
    irrationality well short of paranoia, affirms one’s membership one’s
    ‘in-group’, and can guarantee a lively and affirmative evening in the snug.
    though, is prejudice on steroids. True bigotry is truly irrational, venomous
    and malevolent, expresses itself in real hatred, uses every
    available opportunity to harm the despised
    ‘others’. The bigot actively targets a group that is imagined to be a threat –
    to the belief system, to safety and welfare, and, especially, to resources –
    and won’t shrink from passive, even active, support for discrimination,
    violence and terrorism.
    is the scar tissue of past wrongs, real or imagined, but bigotry is an
    ulcerated wound that will not, nor will be allowed to, heal.
    After all
    the damage done, lives destroyed, and unbearable anguish inflicted, is there
    still active and pernicious bigotry of that type widespread in Northern
    Ireland? I hoped not. I would have assumed that, as 71% voted for a compromise
    that must have been gut-wrenching for a large number on both sides, there must
    still be a large, though slowly-evaporating, pool of communal
    resentment and bitterness – but extensive real and active bigotry? I can’t imagine that cold-shouldering Irish athletes who opt for the Republic qualifies, however offensive that surely is to many.
    In the
    quieter atmosphere of the South, things are a lot easier. There’s still the
    “anyone but England” attitude, when certain ‘foreign games’ are played, though
    that is mostly now a humorous ritual. You’ll see the Union flag more often,
    though not without the occasional frisson of angst. And a stated wish that some
    things had been ‘done differently, or not at all’, although truly ameliorative,
    has not – for some anyhow – quite healed the truly awful damage of 370 (not
    800) years of expropriation, suppression, exploitation and contempt. Who knows?
    We – as a people – are notoriously capable of being, as we say, ‘plámásed’.
    And yes, I
    have prejudices – but they haven’t prevented me from visiting, and greatly
    enjoying my visits, to the Six Counties.

    • But there shouldn’t really be any confusion between bigotry and prejudice. There’s nothing wrong with prejudice. Myself, I’ll take a t-bone steak rather than a pork chop anytime.

  8. Is it not okay for me to prefer boxing over rowing?

    Maybe there’s a class element to all of this too.

    • Of the two, I also prefer boxing, which is far more exciting. In addition, the contestants have the good manners to stay in the same place throughout the contest.

      I agree with you – obviously there’s a class dimension to both sports as practised in the community. But the underlying discussion is really about an undying prejudice and intolerance influencing the acknowledgement of achievement, whatever the sport.

      It’s implied that, if the northern rowers had been wearing green and the boxers wearing red, white and blue at the Olympics, the situation would very likely be the same – it’s the colours that are said to matter, not the sport and, sadly, not the achievement.

      Personally my favourite sport involves thirty highly-skilled and lightly-armed players contesting for a leather ball. There’s a hint of class dimension to that preference too, by the way, but that doesn’t trouble me.

      To use a really awful pun, it’s whatever floats your boat, I suppose.

  9. One of my brothers is writing historical fiction, centred in Northern Ireland. To start off he wrote a short bio piece. In it he says that he became a bigot on Bloody Sunday and it has taken him 40 years to rid himself from it. He has done intensive research on a period not well covered in the late 1500s and now insists that almost all of us in N.i. are Ulster Scots.