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 Scott Harvie, ‘no sport in Northern Ireland is immune from the complex political situation created by sectarian divisions’ (1). Certain sports, such as Gaelic football and hurling, were perceived as ‘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 were seen to be reinforcing divisions within the community. 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 reinforced these divisions. The games curriculums tended 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 then 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 a1998 survey citied spectator violence as the main reason for their lack of attendance at sporting events. What is more, 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.
Today, there appears to be a genuine impetus for greater cross-community involvement in sports. The 2009 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey concluded that 87% of local people were in favour of greater mixing in sporting activities (2). This expressed interest has been translated into action, for a 2013 survey of 16-year-olds found that 67% played sport with people from a different religious community (3).
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 collectively celebrated.’ Examples of such sports stars include: athlete, Mary Peters; footballer, George Best; and young golfer, Rory McIlroy.
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 the positive input from Northern Ireland’s football community.
More information can be found at: http://www.playingforthefuture.co.uk/
2. Game of 3 Halves
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 a respect for diversity, and create an environment for friendships to develop. The concept has been praised by the NI Executive as an example of good practice.
3. Peace Players
Peace Players is an international cross-community charity, which aims to bring children together through neutral sports such as basketball. Two of the flagship schemes initiated by Peace Players are Primary School Twinnings, linking children from local schools together in mixed sporting events, and a Cross-Community Interface League, an after-school club that operates at various interface locations across Belfast.
This beneficial 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.
The full report can be found at: http://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/together-building-a-united-community-strategy.pdf
(1) J. Sugden & A. Bairner ‘Northern Ireland — Sport in a Divided Society’ in Allison (ed.) The Politics of Sport (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986) p.116 Available to purchase at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Changing-Politics-Sport-Lincoln-Allison/dp/0719036712
(2) ‘Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration’ available at: http://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/reformatted_final_print_version_csi_-_26.07.10.pdf
(3) ‘Cross-community Schemes: Participation. Motivation and Mandate’ available at: http://www.ark.ac.uk/publications/updates/update55.pdf
Sport Northern Ireland Corporate Plan, 2011–15: http://www.sportni.net/NR/rdonlyres/3E0E091E-67C9-45BE-A123-6116631EC583/0/CorporatePlan1115.pdf
Sport Matters: http://www.dcalni.gov.uk/sport_matters.pdf
Paul Rooney, ‘Sport For Development and Peace’: http://www.football4peace.eu/Downloads/Publications/rooney_sport_for_development_and_peace_the_case_of_northern_ireland.pdf
Research by Katy FIELD.
Last updated: 20 August 2015