We recognise that sport is a powerful tool in bringing people together. We know that sport can play a central role in breaking down divisions in society, and can provide a mechanism to encourage sharing, learning, and friendship as well as healthy competition across all parts of our society.—Northern Ireland Executive, May 2013
By its very nature, sport has the capacity to be both fraternal and sectarian; to promote community harmony and widen community division.—John Sugden and Scott Harvie
For an activity traditionally considered ‘open for all’, sport in Northern Ireland highlights the deeply divided nature of its society.
According to John Sugden and Alan Bairner (p. 116), “No sport in Northern Ireland is immune from the complex political situation created by sectarian divisions.” Certain sports, such as Gaelic football and hurling, were perceived as (Irish) “nationalist” pursuits, whilst others, like rugby and cricket, were traditionally viewed as “British” activities. Once deemed an expression of a certain cultural identity, such sports can be seen to be reinforcing divisions within the community. For example, until 2001, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) actively banned the involvement of members of the British security forces in Gaelic games.
Moreover, the segregated education system in Northern Ireland further reinforces these divisions. The games curriculums tend to replicate the sports played by their respective communities, leaving little opportunity for cross-community sports to bring different schools together. On the rare occasions that school teams did come together and participate in common sports, it was often against one another, which added an additional layer of conflict on and off the pitch.
Even sports without these cultural connotations were victim to division. For instance, during the 1980s, cycling in Northern Ireland was subject to two separate governing bodies — the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation and the Ulster Cycling Federation — due to disagreement over national affiliation.
During the 1970s, the Labour government sought to divert young people from engaging in violence by building a network of leisure centres across Northern Ireland. However, leisure centres soon became unofficially adopted by either tradition of the community, removing their intended cross-community purpose.
The violence associated with the Troubles further dissuaded many spectators from travelling to venues. Similarly, the threat of potential violence at venues also proved a concern; 46% of respondents in a 1998 survey cited spectator violence as the main reason for their lack of attendance at sporting events. Furthermore, this perceived threat of violence dissuaded many outside teams from playing here. For example, between 1971 and 1975, Northern Ireland’s home football matches were played in England, as opposing teams voiced concerns about travelling to the region.
Despite these challenges, the significance of sport in community life means that it can also be beneficial to the shared future of Northern Ireland. Indeed, in recent years, plentiful attempts have been made to breach community differences through the medium of sport.
There appears to be a genuine impetus for greater cross-community involvement in sports. The 2009 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey indicated that 87% of local people were in favour of greater mixing in sporting activities.
Schools continue to hold immense potential to grow cross-community involvement in sports. According to the Social Exclusion and Sport in Northern Ireland (SESNI) research project, conducted between July 2012 and December 2014 by Ulster University, a majority of respondents irrespective of religious background agreed that schools are a primary cause of perpetuating segregation in sports.
The successes of Northern Irish sports stars can help to bring the community together. According to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, sport provides “heroes, heroines and moments of inspiration which are increasingly collectively celebrated”. Examples include: athlete, Mary Peters; footballer, George Best; and young golfer, Rory McIlroy. Even more so, Northern Ireland’s representation on the international stage, such as in global football competitions or the Olympics, has elicited a sense of shared pride among all residents. Michael O’Neill, the current manager of Northern Ireland’s national football team and a former player himself, spoke of how Northern Ireland’s single goal in the 1982 FIFA World Cup seemed to obliterate the fraught political environment, stating: “Everybody who was Irish supported us. We did what the politicians couldn’t do. We united the country.”
It is important to note that international representation has not always been a unifying force. Unique provisions for international competition, such as those enacted by FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, allow players born in Northern Ireland to choose to represent Ireland or Great Britain/UK. This resulted in intense backlash against some athletes, epitomised by former Northern Ireland football captain Neil Lennon being forced to pull out of an international match in 2002 amidst death threats (Lennon would retire shortly thereafter). Unfortunately, modern players continue to face retaliation that often follows them and extends into their careers (for example, Shane Duffy and James McClean).
Nevertheless, that encapsulating aura of shared connection fostered by the emergence of international competition translates to present day, but it sits in a starkly different political environment. In regards to football, O’Neill notes that the team is more regionally and religiously diverse than ever, reflecting: “Northern Ireland is a different place to the Northern Ireland I grew up in.” Concerted efforts have been made in the realm of football alone to combat sectarianism, such as the Irish Football Association’s Football for All project, which initially began to encourage “a positive celebration of the NI Football Identity” at home through the “Sea of Green” campaign that replaced divisive colour schemes.
The potential of sport to drive relationship-building in Northern Ireland has been a focus for government entities and community groups alike in recent years. The SESNI project found that “there is a widespread belief in the peacebuilding capacity of sport”, with 86% of respondents agreeing that sport could break down barriers between Protestants and Catholics. Cross-community sporting initiatives have been one way that people have put this belief into action.
Cross-community sporting initiatives
1. Playing for the Future
Established in 2009, Playing for the Future is a Craigavon-based organisation that aims to promote cross-community relations through the medium of youth football. Each year, they host the Craigavon Cup event, to showcase the talents of players aged 7–12. The event attracts the involvement of football teams such as Glentoran, Ballymena, and Cliftonville, showcasing positive input from Northern Ireland’s football community.
2. Game of 3 Halves
A Game of 3 Halves is a youth initiative supported by the three leading sports organisations in Northern Ireland — Ulster Rugby, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), and the Irish Football Association (IFA). The idea of these events, which incorporate elements of all three games, is to promote respect for diversity and create an environment for friendships to develop. The concept was praised by the UK government as an example of good practice.
3. Peace Players
Peace Players is an international cross-community charity that aims to bring children together through neutral sports such as basketball. PeacePlayers Northern Ireland engages over 1,200 Catholic and Protestant youth each year, ages 9–25, in year-round and multi-year basketball training, conflict resolution education, and leadership development activities in Northern Ireland. There are five tiers or programmes: Primary School Twinnings, Bridging Divides Program, Leadership Development Program, Coaches Development Program, and Interface Games.
This positive influence of sport on community relations has been noted by the Northern Ireland Executive.
In May 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive reported its intention to launch a pilot Youth Sports Programme for those aged 11–16 and living in interface areas. Uniting Communities is a cross-community youth sport and creativity programme delivered by the Department for Communities (DfC). The programme aims to improve relations among communities and dismantle sectarianism, while also providing opportunities for the development of young leaders. The leadership aspect was launched in 2018 and provided 54 leaders in training with networking events, and also recruited ambassadors to serve as role models for the programme. In the 2019/2020 T:BUC strategy annual update, it was noted that the Uniting Communities through Sport and Creativity Programme positively impacted 2,700 young people since beginning in 2015 and succeeded in fostering youth leadership.
Leadership in Northern Ireland continues to stress the crucial role of sport on improving community relations, with Junior Minister Gordon Lyons noting at the T:BUC Engagement Forum in 2020 that he has “no doubt that these contribute significantly to breaking down barriers and helping to bring communities together”.
Paul Rooney, Sport for Development and Peace (2012)
Sport Matters: The Northern Ireland Strategy for Sports & Physical Recreation, 2009–19 (Department for Communities)
Research by Katy FIELD and Janna TOBIN.
Last updated: 21 July 2023