Bullets, Golf Balls and China Dogs: Rory McIlroy Returns to a Divided Northern Ireland

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They have much in common, the boy wonder of the golfing world who returned to his native Ulster on June 21 and the lads who that same night fought running street battles in an enclave of Belfast called Short Strand. The population of Northern Ireland at 1.7 million is smaller than many cities and drawn from a narrower gene pool; all but a handful of the citizenry are white Christians. Yet as U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, 22, disembarked at an airport named for his country’s most famous sporting export, George Best, and headed home to a hero’s welcome in Holywood, just outside Belfast and only five miles from Short Strand, hundreds of men of McIlroy’s generation, born and brought up within that five-mile radius, donned masks to cover their fresh faces and armed themselves with petrol bombs, stones, guns—and even golf balls. Some planned to attack Catholic homes in reprisal for earlier attacks on Protestant-owned properties, according to an Ulster Unionist politician Michael Copeland. The police said the rioting was orchestrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), one of the so-called loyalist paramilitary organizations to emerge from the years of Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict claiming to represent Protestant interests. As loyalists fought with nationalists and republicans—at any rate, Catholics who might describe themselves as aspiring to a reunited Ireland—and both sides attacked anyone else who came between, a Dublin-based photographer Niall Carson received a gunshot wound to the leg. During riots in the same area on the previous evening, two men were shot in the legs and bullets also hit a police vehicle.

It’s a far cry from the image of Northern Ireland as a success story, a post-conflict society engaged in a steady process of reconciliation and rebirth. That image had already received a knock amid a recent upsurge in bombings and shootings by dissident republican groups such as Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. The truth was anyway (and as ever) more complicated, as the sharply contrasting trajectories of McIlroy and the Short Strand rioters illustrate.

(See Headaches and Hope: What the Queen’s First Ever Visit Means to Ireland)

Northern Ireland is close to a kind of peace, a kind of stability. Dogged negotiations, clever footwork and bravery by political leaders on both sides of the divide and in London and Dublin have delivered devolved institutions based on the principle of power-sharing and a confidence in the ability of the ballot, rather than the bullet, to deliver change. This evolution has helped to marginalize the paramilitary organizations, drawing some of their former activists into democratic politics and leaving a rump to cloak their gangsterism in a pretense of political principle.

But society is still divided, as it was during the Troubles, and not only between Protestants and Catholics, loyalists and republicans, unionists and nationalists.  Those divisions still exist, of course. You see them in the colors painted on curbstones—the red, white and blue of the Union flag for a Union-supporting area and the green, orange and white of the Irish flag denoting a nationalist enclave. Then there are the statistics: only 6% of northern Irish schoolkids attend “integrated schools”; the rest go to institutions still demarcated by religion. Social housing is similarly segregated.

Yet a divide that is at least as persistent goes to explaining why some young Northern Irish continue to become embroiled in sectarianism while others live almost untouched by its taint. It is the gulf between those with prospects and those without. Obviously McIlroy, blessed with prodigious sporting talent, has always enjoyed greater prospects than most of his contemporaries, but many ordinarily gifted Northern Irish men and women also grow up with some some vision of a productive future. What distinguishes these children from others is not religion: McIlroy is Catholic; Graeme McDowell, another Ulsterman who won the U.S. Open in 2010, is Protestant. Nor is it pure economics. McIlroy’s father worked long hours as a cleaner and bartender to finance his son’s ambitions. But money and location do count. It’s hard to see beyond the rubble-strewn sidewalks of Short Strand to a better way of life.

You can find signs of aspiration—and perhaps in these aspirations some grounds for optimism—even in such hardscrabble, inner-city neighborhoods, though. In the mid-1990s, a loyalist agreed to take me to meet fellow members of a paramilitary organization. On the way to the rendezvous, he took a detour to his home, in one of the notoriously rough Belfast housing estates, parked up and opened the trunk to reveal two large objects shrouded in black plastic garbage sacks. He asked if I wouldn’t mind carrying one into the house, warning that the package must be handled with extreme caution. My mind raced. I wasn’t wearing gloves; my fingerprints would be all over the plastic. And what could weigh so much and require such care in handling apart from a mortar or a bomb? Once inside his pin-neat sitting room he stripped of the wrapping and revealed the answer to that question: he’d bought himself a pair of matching, life-sized china dogs with pink bows in their ceramic curls and goofily affectionate expressions.

This loyalist, intent on building himself a comfortable nest in the midst of decay and violence, was one of the first to accept the possibility of a political settlement. He might have played a part in the peace process, but was gunned down a year or so later, the victim of a feud among loyalists thugs. Paramilitary violence often wounds the communities it professes to protect, and many paramilitaries are embroiled in lucrative racketeering. Securing Northern Ireland’s peace relies on dismantling these criminal organizations and finding ways to allay the sectarianism they both fuel and feed off. Combating sectarianism requires an injection of hope. Winning the U.S. Open is an unobtainable dream for all but a very few (though the odds in tiny Northern Ireland, with its two champions, look a little better than in other countries), but McIlroy’s generation needs to be persuaded that they all have opportunities.

See A Rory Story: McIlroy’s Mental Game Wins the U.S. Open