Here is an interesting petition advocating a Northern Ireland team for all sports played internationally.
It seems a simple and sensible enough case, and to be clear it is one with which I am instinctively very comfortable. In most sports, countries have their own team; and sharing in the trials and tribulations of a shared Northern Ireland team would help build a Northern Irish identity (and a potentially shared and inclusive one at that).
However, a bit like the case for a Northern Ireland flag, I do not think it is as simple as that.
The census tells us that “Northern Irish(ness)” is a concept with which those of a broadly Nationalist background are increasingly comfortable. However, this may well be for quite different reasons from the “Northern Irishness” as expressed by those of a more Unionist persuasion. This distinction remains relevant; for it may be that it is precisely the ability to lead an “all-Ireland” life culturally (including in most sports) while not having to bother with the complexities of merging distinct economies and losing the NHS which makes those of a Nationalist background more content than ever with the designation “Northern Irish”. Ironically, therefore, it may be that by cutting off an all-Ireland aspect of their lives previously taken for granted (in sports such as rugby, hockey or cricket) that in fact the burgeoning and shared “Northern Irish” identity would be restricted and damaged.
(That is to leave quite aside the fact that people in Northern Ireland are not compelled to support a “Northern Ireland” team just because one exists. It can, in fact, be just as divisive as anything else.)
There are practical issues with having no Northern Ireland team in some sports, that is for sure. World rankings, for example, assume that the “Great Britain” Olympic hockey team is made up of players from England, Scotland and Wales (which each otherwise has its own team), leaving Northern Irish players coming up through an all-Ireland set-up to jump through hoops if they wish to play for it (as many do; they are British and there is a serious medal chance as part of the British team, but none realistically as part of an Irish one); a specific Northern Ireland team would be practically useful there (with players at Olympic level then free to opt for “Great Britain and NI” or “Ireland”).
On the other hand, there are practical reasons in some sports that you would never even consider a separate Northern Ireland team. In cricket, for example, there is already a combined West Indies team and actually a combined England and Wales team; so why, particularly as it challenges for test status over the next few years, would anyone contemplate breaking up a perfectly adequate combined all-Ireland team?
Even beyond practicalities, some sports already serve the range of identities relatively well. People of “Northern Irish” identity will have little difficulty in rugby union supporting Ulster (in the Pro12), Ireland (in the Six Nations) and the British Isles (on tour). Even golfers can on occasions represent Northern Ireland (in individual tournaments), on other occasions Ireland (in the World Cup), on other occasions Great Britain and Ireland (in the Walker/Curtis Cup or Seve Trophy), and on others Europe (in the Ryder/Solheim Cup).
There is also a reality that sports where there is a Northern Ireland team – notably football, snooker and the Commonwealth Games – still need to do more in terms of symbols and anthems to make those teams genuinely inclusive. (That is not to deny great strides have been made; nor is that problem confined the Northern Ireland teams – all-Ireland teams have a similar problem.)
To be clear, I would personally like to see a Northern Ireland team in more sports. But then, I would also like to see an agreed flag. However, there are reasons of history, politics and even theology that we have divided identities in this place, and that many would genuinely disagree with me on that point. This cannot be overcome merely by a mixture of enforced change and wishful thinking.