Sport and Community Relations in Northern Ireland
by John Sugden and Scott Harvie
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Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
T: (01265) 324666 or 324165
Sport and Community Relations in Northern Ireland
by John Sugden and Scott Harvie
Centre for the Study of Conflict
The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict.
This paper is a new publication by John Sugden and Scott Harvie on Sport and Community Relations in Northem Ireland and focuses on the relationship between sport, community division and unison. It is one of a set of new publications which the Centre will produce over the next few months, on topics such as Education for Mutual Understanding, Peace Education, Parades, the Role of the Police and Classroom Mediation.
The conflict which has afflicted the population of Northem Ireland for almost a quarter of a century has deep historical roots. Its causes, present nature and likely future development are the subject of much heated political and intellectual debate. Despite this there has been widespread acceptance of the view that Northem Ireland is a society deeply divided along sectarian lines and that the existence of separate communities with different traditions and holding distinctive and mutually incompatible aspirations lies at the root of its problems. Various strategies have been employed by government to attempt to address the divide, so far with limited success. Recent initiatives have focused on areas of social life which may have some bearing on community divisions and the development of the conflict. One such area, with which this report is concerned, is sport.
In recent times it has become increasingly clear that sport is, to a greater or lesser degree, moulded by the nature of the society and political climate within which it takes place. The two major international sporting events held in 1992 illustrate this point. At the Olympic Games held in Barcelona, the inclusion of a team from South Africa and the use of the Olympic flag to honour medal winners from loosely united fragments of the former Soviet Union reflected not sporting phenomena but rather recent political developments. The unlikely Danish success in the 1992 European soccer championships was only made possible by a belated decision on the part of the sport's governing body to ban Yugoslavia on account of the on-going ethnic strife within its borders.
As far as Northem Ireland is concerned, the complexities of the relationship between sport and society are highlighted the province's two medal winners at the Barcelona Olympics. Boxer Wayne McCullough, from the staunchly loyalist Highfield estate in Belfast, won a silver medal fighting for the Irish team, whilst his fans at home faced the prospect of the Tricolour being used to honour McCullough's achievement, the same flag as was being flown over neighbouring republican estates. In contrast hockey player Jackie McWilliams, from the Randalstown club, received a bronze medal as a member of the women's hockey side of the United Kingdom, playing under the Union flag.
Within Northem Ireland prevailing community divisions can often be reflected in the sporting domain. The fact that cycling is currently administered by two completely autonomous governing bodies and that a soccer match such as the Linfield-Donegal Celtic encounter can give rise to widespread violence on a scale out of proportion to either club's support base, appears to bear this out.
It has been asserted that beyond religion the most important sources of community divisiveness are educational background, neighbourhood affiliation and sporting preference1. Despite this little is known about the nature of the role sport can and does play in influencing relations between the communities.
This report attempts to examine the impact of sport in the promotion of community relations, or indeed community separation, in Northem Ireland. Its purpose is to assist in the development of proposals about ways in which the contribution of sport to community relations can be maximised. It arises from a research project based at the Centre for the Study of Conflict in the University of Ulster.
The project has been of one year's duration. In that time it has sought to obtain an overall picture of sports provision in Northem Ireland and to understand how individual sports view their role in society with particular regard to the practice of community relations. Three elements of the research are reported here.
The first involved a review of the range of sports available in Northern lreland and the establishment of a body of information concerning their historical, social, political and cultural development. This was done by scrutinising the available literature dealing with the role of sport within the social life of the province and examining various sources of information associated with individual sports.
The second element of the research consisted of a sample survey of those involved in the management of a number of the main participant and spectator sports. Sixteen sports were identified to provide a sample representative of both communities, of both sexes and of both team and individual games. A detailed questionnaire was sent to contact persons within each sport in the spring of 1993 with a covering letter requesting an interview at which the questionnaire could be completed.
The third aspect focused on sports identified as suitable for case studies in respect of the practice of community relations. The sports selected (cycling, football, hockey and boxing) were chosen to take account of variables such as social class and gender and differences between team and individual sports. In each case detailed information on developments within the activity was obtained and two sports (cycling and football) were examined in-depth, interviews being conducted with officials, participants and/or spectators. Subject areas for discussion were based around issues arising from the sample survey but the interviews were of an open-ended nature to allow for any further points relevant to the sport and community theme to be raised.
Limitations of the Study
The validity and general applicability of the findings are limited in several ways. Firstly, the sample survey which generated most of the information focused on 16 sports only. While the research team believe that the spectrum of activities selected represents sporting life in Northern Ireland, it is by no means certain that information gleaned from sports such as football, golf and boxing can be applied to other sports such as water polo, tennis or judo. Secondly, the survey was completed through the offices of the governing bodies of sampled sports. As such it is the views of senior administrators of sport which are represented and it cannot be guaranteed that their views accurately reflect the social context of sport in Northem Ireland, particularly as it is experienced at a grass roots level.
An attempt is made to correct any possible informer bias by introducing some case study material (appendix). However, because time limitations restricted this aspect of the study to four sports (football, cycling, hockey and boxing) it is not possible to comprehensively gauge the extent to which the vested interests governing bodies have in presenting favourable public images of their sports influenced their responses to the survey. Finally, not all of the sports selected felt willing or able to answer all of the questions and this, to some extent, undermines the representative nature of the sample.
This report set out to discover to what extent social patterns surrounding participation in sport in Northern Ireland are influenced by and in turn influence the province's divided community structure. Furthermore, the report attempted to find out if sport in Northern Ireland has a role to play in advancing the aims and objectives of Community Relations.
The Demographics of Sport in Northern Ireland
The governing bodies surveyed suggest that as many as 250,000 people are formally involved in sport, whether it be as participants, coaches, referees/umpires or administrators. This does not take account of those participating in sports not surveyed, those casually engaged in sport-based leisure activities, and the large numbers of people who are committed sports spectators and fans. While we must treat these governing body estimates with caution, by any standards this represents a large proportion of Northern Irelands population which in 1991 was estimated at slightly over 1.5 million. Moreover, if, as suggested below, the overwhelming majority of these participants are young males, given that the total population of males in Northern Ireland between the ages of 10 and 50 was estimated in 1991 to be in the region of 400,000, this means that a very large proportion of the most economically and politically active segment of the province, one way or another, are engaged in sport.34 Thus, sport appears to be a hugely significant sphere of social activity in Northern Ireland.
People who take part in organised sport appear more likely to be middle-class, and, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the particular activity engaged in, somewhat more likely to be from a younger age-group than would be the case in a typical cross-section of the population. This may be explained to an extent by the nature of the sports selected for the survey, by the lack of response of particular sports and by the limits of the very basic methodology used.
However these findings may also be considered to support the view that the people who are under-represented in sport are those likely to be disadvantaged in terms of resources such as money, time, social confidence and status.
The position in respect of religion is more difficult to discern. It is perhaps understandable that sports were somewhat less forthcoming in providing estimates of their religious mix than in respect of the other socially relevant characteristics. In particular sports which appear and/or thought themselves to have a greater number of Protestants than Catholics taking part in their activity were reluctant to estimate the extent to which this is the case. This may reflect misapprehension about their sport being seen as prejudiced and a number of respondents put great emphasis on pointing out that they were non-sectarian and open to all. However, this attitude conveniently ignores the fact that in Northern Ireland it is often how institutions are perceived from the outside which governs patterns of cross-community recruitment.
The result is to make any general assessment of the religious balance in sport in Northern Ireland, based on the information provided, a very difficult enterprise. Perhaps what does emerge from this basic information is that Catholics do participate substantially in organised sport in Northern Ireland, but to the extent that this is done through activities organised by the GAA, the meaningful contact that arises between the two communities is likely to be limited. Relative to their numbers in the total population, compared with Protestants, Catholics are over represented in sports participation in Northern Ireland. However, the overwhelming majority of Catholics who are engaged in sports do so within the exclusive embrace of the GAA. Remove the GAA from the equation and we discover that Catholics are underrepresented within the ranks of the other sports sampled which tend to be Protestant dominated.
These findings confirm the view that Gaelic games and associated activities provide a very important focus for the nationalist community. In other sports there is Catholic representation to a greater or lesser degree. However the information obtained is not sufficient to allow firm conclusions to be reached as to the religious balance within these sports other than to say that the Protestant predominance found is at least equivalent to that which pertains in the population of Northern Ireland at large. For whatever reasons few popular sports, in terms of the number of players, actually bring Protestants and Catholics together, although cycling, boxing and football may, to some extent, be exceptions to this rule.
The Organisational Politics of Sport in Northern Ireland
A wide range of sports are played and watched in Northern Ireland and our sample suggests that this diversity is grounded, more or less evenly, in both Gaelic and British traditions. However, in terms of organisational structures, it seems that all sports, including Gaelic games, have borrowed heavily from the principles of rational recreation which drove the development of English sports and games in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, it is clear that views of what cultural tradition a given sport belongs to has a critical influence in determining who plays what in Northern Ireland.
In terms of international and regional sporting representation, Northern Ireland's status is made complex by the fact that individual governing bodies of sport have determined in different ways what national or sub-national configuration their players will represent. 13 of the 15 sports which responded to this section of the survey are organised on an all-Ireland and 9 county Ulster basis. The most notable exception is association football which exists independently as a 6 county Northern Ireland entity following the pattern established by the four home associations of the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
The fact that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales enjoy independent status in international football is a consequence of the historic role which the United Kingdom played in the development of the game on the world stage. However, with the fragmentation of the former Soviet Union into a plethora of soccer playing nation states, and the emergence of new soccer powers elsewhere in world outside of Europe and South America, increasing pressure is being placed upon the world governing body FIFA to discover ways of rationalising its existing membership. One suggestion has been that Great Britain should field a single international team with Northern Ireland either amalgamating with a British team or integrating with the Republic of Ireland to produce an all-Ireland team along the lines established by Rugby Union. However, as our case study reveals, there is tremendous resistance in football's largely working class following in Northern Ireland to either of these ideas.
Another exception to the all-Ireland pattern is cycling which has manifestly failed to heal an historic split which has left two governing bodies, one of which is organised on an all-Ireland/Ulster basis while the other has adopted the U.K./Northern Ireland model. Whereas in football the strength of opinion against an all-Ireland framework appears to be shared both by the governing body and within the sport's large working class support, with cycling the main divisions seem to be within the ranks of its administrators. The schism within cycling seems particularly ironic given that one of the most highly visible sporting Community Relations initiatives revolves around a cycle event, namely the annual Belfast-Dublin-Belfast Maracycle.
The picture is future confused because in certain cases national and/ or sub-national representation can change according to the nature of the competition. For instance, boxing generally follows the all-Ireland/Ulster pattern except for participation in the Commonwealth Games when the 6 county, Northern Ireland model followed by soccer is adopted. Rugby is unique among the 15 sports which responded because every four years or so the British Lions are formed by selecting (at least in theory) players from Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is interesting to note, however, that in the Republic of Ireland the British Lions are often referred to as the 'Lions', and sometimes Great Britain and Ireland.
The rules governing eligibility for international representation have created a political quagmire for several sports in Northern Ireland. The fact that people from Northern Ireland can be both British and/or Irish citizens means that in many sports, depending upon the nature of the competition, players can elect to represent either nation and, in some cases, can even represent both. While this has often given Northern Irish sportsmen and women greater opportunities for international recognition, it has also led to serious disputes within and between governing bodies north and south of the border. Hockey and association football provide the outstanding examples of this. In terms of the latter, these disputes are likely to worsen in the future since, in 1993, the IFA has adopted FIFA's 'grandparent' rule governing eligibility for national selection.
In most cases it appears that the governing bodies and the sportsmen and women they represent take a pragmatic approach when it comes to their sport's national and regional organisational characteristics, wishing, for the most part, to keep political matters at arm's length and get on with their respective sports. However, because representative sports can be viewed as the symbolic property of the communities out of which they grow it proves to be very difficult to insulate sport from the political currents of the wider society. This tendency is exacerbated by the propensity of representative sports to be staged amidst flag waving and anthem singing.
Flags and anthems have long been thorny issues in Northern Ireland and, as we have seen, sport has often been adversely affected by controversies stirred by the playing of Irish and/or British anthems and the flying of the Union Jack and/or the Tricolour. In many cases governing bodies, in tacit recognition of the volatile nature of Irish politics, have been prepared to down play the issue of national symbolism through a number of strategies including: avoiding the use of flags and anthems altogether; substituting national flags and anthems with neutral emblems and songs; and changing these formats according to the nature of the competition and where it is held. Hockey, basketball and boxing seem to be particularly sensitive to the issue of national symbols compared with Gaelic games and association football whose most senior contests are traditionally conducted amidst collages of contrasting nationalist identification.
However, the definition of the situation is not always under the control of national or regional governing bodies. Sometimes European and world sporting authorities intervene to insist that a national flag is flown and a national anthem played when Northern Irish sports men and women represent one or other nation. For instance, the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made participation in the Olympic hockey tournament dependent upon progress in qualification tournaments rather than by invitation alone, politicised hockey in Ireland in two overlapping ways.
In the first place it meant that for the first time Ireland would be competing in the same competition as Great Britain. In the past the best players from Northern Ireland had been able to play for both national squads. The change in the IOC's ruling required them to choose, once and for all, whether they would represent Great Britain or Ireland. Secondly, given that a significant proportion of both the Irish men's and women's hockey team are usually drawn from Northern Ireland, many senior administrators of the Ulster Branches of the respective hockey unions were uncomfortable with the prospect of the Irish Tricolour and the Irish national anthem accompanying the performances of athletes whom they considered, first and foremost, to be British.
Thus, despite the pragmatism of individual sports men, sportswomen and administrators (sometimes), it seems that so long as the political status of Northern Ireland is disputed, then international sport will continue as a forum for the expression of the various factions engaged in that dispute.
External Political Factors and Sport in Northern Ireland
Related to the above is the perceived effect of the troubles on the day to day running of sport in Northern Ireland. A summary view of the governing bodies with regard to this would seem to be that for the most part sport goes on in Northern Ireland despite the political conflict there.
However, there is some, albeit uneven, recognition that from time to time the troubles have had a negative effect on the province's sporting life. Restricted travel within Northern Ireland for sports associated with one or other religious tradition and/or for sports which include members of the security forces, particularly during the 1970s, was seen to have been a problem for several governing bodies. Likewise, several mentioned difficulties encountered when attempting to host competitions and tournaments demanding the presence of teams and players from outside of Northern Ireland. Both of these sets of problems were highlighted in November 1993 when, in the wake of the Shankill bomb and the Greysteel massacre, many teams from outside the province cancelled fixtures which should have brought them to Northern Ireland and several local sporting events were called off for fear of terrorist interference.
The GAA felt that its members were singled out unfairly by the security forces when travelling to and from Gaelic games. It was also pointed out that their share of public funding in Northern Ireland had been restricted, particularly during the hunger strikes of the 1980's, because of a perceived association between them and the politics of Irish nationalism.
The impression of victimisation given by the GAA was, to a limited extent, shared by several other sports which felt that if they had been affected by the political conflict at all it was as unwilling and often accidental bystanders. There was little appreciation by the governing bodies that sport in Northern Ireland could actually contribute to political conflict.
There was some acknowledgement that because of an association between certain sports and one or other cultural tradition, their recruitment was restricted. However, this was perceived largely to be predetermined by the province's divided education system. There may be a general reluctance on the part of governing bodies of sports predominantly made up of one religious group to acknowledge the impact of community divisions on recruitment for fear of this being interpreted as an admission that barriers exist within the sport itself. Respondents placed emphasis on the fact that their sports were non-sectarian and open to all and possibly felt 'uneasy about recognising restrictions (albeit externally imposed) on recruitment from both communities.
Only one sport, basketball, admitted that the troubles and community division combined to have a negative impact on standards, pointing out that the apparent abandonment of the sport by Protestant secondary schools had seriously threatened the sport's already narrow recruitment base. Arguably, despite claims to the contrary, precisely the same point could be made about sports such as hockey, rugby union and Gaelic games which tend to select from one community only.
Sometimes actions speak louder than words, however, and it is interesting to note that through a series of initiatives rugby union is endeavouring to extend its recruitment system into Catholic schools. This is inspired less by a belief in Community Relations and more by the need to broaden the sport's talent pool which hitherto in Northern Ireland has largely been restricted to young men from Protestant grammar schools.
In some ways it is ironic that those sports which were closest to being exclusive to one or other community reported being less affected by the troubles than those sports which evidenced some measure of cross-community participation. For instance, the highest level of sectarian inspired crowd disorder was reported by association football, one of the few spectator sports which is quite popular within both communities. Hardly any of the other sports surveyed regularly attract crowds on the same scale as senior association football which, alongside boxing, provides one of the few public forums within which working class Protestant and working class Catholic supporters can mingle. As is suggested by the case studies, why the former quite often leads to confrontation and violence whereas the latter never does has a lot to do with tradition, and the way each sport is controlled from within its own boundaries.
Sport and Community Relations in Northern Ireland
Governing bodies were asked a series of questions which focused in some depth on the relations fostered between Protestants and Catholics within their sports. The responses to this section of the survey highlighted the ambivalent views held by governing bodies about the community context of the sports over which they preside.
Defying common knowledge, when asked in general terms to assess how much cross-community contact was generated by their sports, most governing bodies responded "a great deal". Even those sports which had confessed earlier to have a membership which was virtually exclusive to one or other community claimed at this juncture that cross-community contact was "moderate".
When it comes to generalisations, there seems to be a tendency amongst sports to exaggerate the degree of mixing between Protestants and Catholics, perhaps again for fear of being labelled as sectarian in some way or other. Given the sensitivities of the issue, this is, at least to some extent, understandable. The emphasis sports placed on their being 'open to all' may have appeared to jar with a reality where most players are drawn from one religious community.
However, a series of questions which probed more deeply into the quality and quantity of cross-community sport generated what appear to be more realistic responses. Although the complexity of this set of questions defies sweeping generalisations, some interesting trends do emerge. Examining results across the different levels of competition, it does seem clear that contact between Protestant and Catholic school children in sport is severely limited. Where teams are concerned, the vast majority of sports consider there to be little or no cross-community contact. In contrast at senior level most believe a great deal of mixing between people from the two communities does occur. This appears to reinforce commonly held perceptions regarding the effect of Northern Ireland's divided educational system. Furthermore, it is noticeable that those sports which are not generally played in schools claim to offer more opportunities for cross-community involvement in later life.
However, the estimates made by sports should be treated with caution as there may again be some tendency to over estimate contact at youth and senior levels, where sports themselves rather than the schools system may be seen as responsible for any deficiencies. Another potentially significant pointer may arise from the fact that in the most popular sport played by both communities, football, there is considered to be less contact between Protestants and Catholics at senior level than at schools or youth level in respect of the leagues system. Bearing in mind the estimate that there was a 55:45 Catholic-Protestant break-down in terms of Irish League players this seems a little strange. Drawing on the case study material, an explanation may lie in the Protestant predominance in the administrative and support bases found at senior level, which, in respect of certain clubs, has acted in conjunction with deep-rooted traditions to virtually or totally exclude players from the Catholic community.
In all respects, there is no cross-community contact reported in Gaelic sport which seems to reinforce the suggestion that the moderate degree of mixing that was considered to exist in general terms may be exaggerated. Estimates from ladies' and, to a lesser extent, men's hockey also tend to be lower when addressing specifics rather than making general assessments. It may be that in considering individual elements there is less concern about any apparent failings in the sport itself being identified. Having said this, it is also interesting to note that both in general and specific terms estimates from mens hockey are noticeably lower than those from ladies' hockey. Whether this signifies a real gender difference in respect of Community Relations or whether it reflects a more realistic assessment on the part of the men's game may merit further investigation.
Sports were further asked a series of questions concerned with their involvement and/or interest in the more formal side of Community Relations work. The summary response to this area of concern was that there was very little current involvement in sport focused Community Relations work being done by the governing bodies and that, for the most part, they did not believe this to be of relevance to their collective remit.
Only association football believed that Community Relations had a role to play in the development of their sport. This is no doubt because, as we have seen, football's broad cross community appeal has made it most vulnerable to sectarian exploitation. The work done by football in respect of mixing young people from both communities, although its long- term effect on attitudes is uncertain, has had short-term benefits, particularly for the sport itself both in bringing in extra financial support and expanding the pool of talent available. Other sports concerned about standards of performance in their game within Northern Ireland, particularly those which tend to be the preserve of one religious community, may be interested in such developments, especially if additional resources are made available.
The majority of the other governing bodies, however, seem to take the view that by formally including Community Relations as an area for development within their sports they are tacitly admitting that sectarian problems exist therein. This view is expressed quite articulately by boxing, a sport in which a substantial degree of mixing of Protestants and Catholics has successfully taken place. They report that they do not see themselves as having any role in terms of Community Relations. They are non-political and open to all and their objective is simply to win as many medals as possible, regardless of which side of the community they come from.
However, as is clearly illustrated in the case study on boxing, many of the aims, objectives and practices of Community Relations are buried deep within the substructure of the sport. In this context, in the single minded pursuit of sporting success, the Ulster boxing fraternity is automatically progressing the Community Relations agenda. The same cannot be said for many of the other sports included in this survey.
This study set out to discover the role played by organised sport in Northern Ireland's complex community structure. Its overriding aim was to discover the extent to which, if at all, sport, within a context defined by its governing bodies, contributes to the fulfilment of the objectives of Community Relations. Information was obtained through a sample survey of governing bodies of sport and through a series of in-depth case studies. The following are the main findings of the research:
33 Sports Council for Northern Ireland, The Assessment of Adult Participation in Sport and Physical Recreation in Sport and Physical Recreation in Northern Ireland 1983 - 1993, unpublished discussion paper, House of Sport, Belfast, 1994.