Nowhere was a few minutes’ research more obviously needed than before Melanie “not just Barking but halfway to Upminster” Phillips charged into the area of Olympic Committees and nationality in her latest rantfest for the Daily Mail. “Goodbye Team UK: Is Northern Ireland too awkward to be included formally?” she asks, in the rhetorical style beloved of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).
And Mel’s totally batshit conclusion is that the Team GB label is a sign that Northern Ireland is about to be somehow abandoned by the Westminster Government, which is jaw-dropping, even by her standards. Using the acronym GB excludes Northern Ireland specifically, but in the same way excludes the Crown Dependencies (Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey) and British Overseas Territories.
So why isn’t Mel cheering for all of those, given that three members of the current Olympic squad come from the last named? British Overseas Territories also include Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands – is she suggesting that either or both are about to be ceded to groups of dastardly Spanish speakers? Maybe those Channel Islands are about to be handed to the garlic crunching French?
The fact of the matter, as with so many things to do with the island of Ireland and its recent history, is a little less black and white and rather more complex. Even after gaining its independence from the rest of the UK, Ireland – that being the 26 counties that form the Republic – retained a currency union, even beyond decimalisation and to the end of the 1970s.
Ireland retained vehicle registration marks in the UK style until the late 1980s. Road signs and markings up to this time were broadly the same either side of the Northern Irish border. And other all-Ireland bodies concerned sport: many sports are arranged on this basis. So it’s not always possible to align the borders of the sovereign states with the jurisdiction of sporting bodies.
That is one reason that the British and Irish Olympic bodies take a pragmatic approach to participation by those living in Northern Ireland. Another is that those from the Catholic (and Nationalist) tradition tend to favour the Irish flag, while those from the Protestant (and Loyalist) tradition favour that of Great Britain. It’s a system that works for all those concerned, and without stirring up more trouble.
At the London Olympics, athletes from Northern Ireland are competing under both flags, with a majority favouring that of the Republic. All this could easily have been figured out by Melanie Phillips, had she been inclined to enlighten herself, rather than sit astride her political hobbyhorse for the sole purpose of sounding off about a subject on which she is so manifestly ignorant of the facts.
Which is more or less where she comes from anyway. No change there, then.