Sport and Community Relations in Northern
Scott Harvie and John Sugden
University of Ulster (1994c)
The authors would like to express their gratitude to the Central
Community Relations Unit which funded this project, advised on
the development of the research and contributed to the preparation
of this document. Likewise, we would like to thank the Centre
for the Study of Conflict at the University of Ulster and the
Sports Council for Northern Ireland, both of which provided invaluable
support and guidance throughout the research process. Finally,
we would like to thank the governing bodies of sport which took
part in the sample survey and those sports' administrators, players
and fans who provided information for the case studies.
|Summary, Findings and Recommendations
Sport and the Community
The Social Demographics of Sport in Northern Ireland
The Organisational Politics of Sport in Northern Ireland
External Political Factors and Sport in Northern Ireland
Sport and Community Relations
|Conclusion and Summary of Findings|
|Appendix A ||Community Relations in Sport Questionnaire
|Appendix B ||Summary of Information from Survey
|Appendix C ||Case Studies
Summary of Report, Main Findings and Recommendations
Sport is a significant aspect of life in Northern Ireland which,
to a greater or lesser extent, touches everybody living in the
province. Whether it be through success in athletics, boxing,
golf, rugby, Gaelic football or soccer, sport has been one avenue
through which the people of Northern Ireland have demonstrated
that, despite more than 25 years of political conflict and community
division, they are capable of producing excellence. Furthermore,
sport Northern Ireland is at least as popular amongst the general
population as it is in other regions of the United Kingdom. Sport
is more than a weekend diversion, however. It is a social institution
which, alongside the family, the church, and the school has an
important role to play in the socialisation of individuals into
the ways of life of a given society.
In Northern Ireland you are what you play and, because play is
essentially a social activity, it has an important role to play
in helping to determine the nature of the relationship between
self and community. As toddlers Protestant and Catholic children
participate in unstructured forms of play which are similar. However,
because many, if not most, play exclusively in the company of
others from the same religious tradition, from a very early age
play develops as an important medium for the differentiation between
"us" Catholics and "them" Protestants and
This process is accelerated when child's play gives way to a network
of organised games and sports which themselves tend to be rooted
in separate institutions and different cultural traditions. Subjects
such as history and religious education are not the only aspects
of the curriculum which are subject to different interpretations
according to the religious labels under which most of the Province's
schools age grouped. The games curriculum of most, if not all,
of Northern Ireland's schools is likewise determined according
to a separation in the Province's cultural heritage: Gaelic in
"Catholic" schools; and traditional British games such
as rugby, hockey and cricket in "Protestant" schools.
When schools participate in a common game, such as association
football, they often do so in ways which ensure that most Protestant
and Catholic school children never play in the same teams, but
only against one another.
This division is maintained outside of the school gates by a vast
network of voluntary sports organisations and governing bodies
through which separate community membership is socially and symbolically
reinforced in terms of what games are watched, which teams are
supported and which clubs and societies are joined and patronised.
Church leagues, boys clubs, uniformed youth organisations, junior
Gaelic leagues and the like continue the sporting apartheid established
by he school system. In collaboration with the schools, they also
form a differentiated feeder system which allocates young participants
to the appropriate adult sports clubs and leagues on the basis
of what games they are good at and which cultural traditions they
This tendency is exaggerated by the intense partisanship of fans
for those sports which attract a substantial public following.
It is clear that while many players are passive victims of the
sectarian community geography which divides their sports and games,
the same cannot be said of significant numbers of supporters who
see sport as a stage upon which they can publicly celebrate separate
community/national identifications and affiliations. There are
others who are not even sports fans, but who recognise sport's
symbolic role and exploit it at every opportunity for narrow political
Nevertheless, while sport is particularly responsive to belief
systems which prevail in the cultural envelope into which it is
inserted, it is not inherently politically divisive. On the contrary,
sport is a very flexible social medium which, under certain circumstances,
has a proven capacity to bring people together in an atmosphere
of fraternity and good fellowship. Sport is especially appealing
to young people of both sexes who are attracted by its unique
combination of physical, cerebral and socio-emotional challenges
and opportunities. Since it's reemergence in the nineteenth century
the educational function of modern sport has been stressed whereby
in the process of learning to play the game, participants, particularly
youngsters, also learn an ethical and moral code to serve them
beyond the boundaries of the game itself. Fairness, honesty, discipline,
steadfastness and mutual respect are among a number of values
and character building attributes which, it is believed, are generated
through participation in sport.
Thus, while sport can reflect and contribute to many of the negative
features of Community Relations in Northern Ireland, it may have
a largely unrealised potential to promote community reconciliation.
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:
- By its very nature sport has the capacity to be both fraternal
and sectarian; to promote community harmony and widen community
- Sport is one of the most highly significant elements of Northern
Ireland's community life.
- Those engaged in sport tend to be young to middle-age males,
the same social strata which are most economically and politically
active in later life.
- Sports preference and patterns of participation tend to be
governed by cultural tradition and community affiliation. This
is particularly true of the province's major team games.
- Differential sports affiliation is rooted in Northern Ireland's
divided education system which supports a divided games curriculum.
- Those sports which are not grounded in the school curriculum
appear to offer more opportunities for cross-community interaction.
- The GM is by a long way the most important sporting forum
for Northern Ireland's Catholics who tend to be under-represented
in other sports.
- The lack of a uniform position on national/regional organisation
and representation, the playing of anthems and the flying of flags
leads to confusion and can heighten political feelings.
- Sports' administrators and athletes themselves are generally
pragmatic when it comes to avoiding becoming embroiled in social
and political disputes in the wider society.
- Sport in Northern Ireland is unavoidably drawn into the political
realm on the international stage through the confusion which exists
over the national identity of the province's population. This
can be exaggerated through the voluntary or imposed use of national
flags and anthems.
- Governing bodies claim to engage in normal sport despite the
pressures of doing so an abnormal society. Nevertheless, restrictions
on travel, difficulties of attracting participants and events
from outside of Northern Ireland, security force harassment, under
funding, risks for R.U.C. players and restricted recruitment were
singled out as having a negative impact on sport.
- Governing bodies generally believe that a considerable amount
of cross-community interaction takes place in the name of sport.
Under closer questioning this proves not to be the case. In fact,
there is relatively little inter-community interaction fostered
through sport in Northern Ireland.
- Most governing bodies do not see that a formal Community Relations
agenda is relevant for their sports, believing that the formal
introduction of Community Relations work could introduce issues
which are best kept outside of sport.
- Only association football appears to wholeheartedly embrace
Community Relations and this is believed to be paying dividends
by increasing the sport's recruitment base and bringing in additional
- Boxing claims not to have Community Relations as a formal
agenda item . However, because of its ethos and traditions, its
open-door approach to recruitment and the way it is internally
controlled, boxing offers one of the best examples of cross-community
sport in Northern Ireland.
Community Relations is an issue for sport. It is important
that those involved in the administration and operation of sport
in the province recognise that there are problems and opportunities
in this area. It is of no value to continue to assert that sport
in Northern Ireland is politically neutral: Proponents of this
position fall prey to a popular fallacy, believing that because,
ideally, sport and politics should not be mixed, they are not
in fact mixed. The evidence provided herein strongly suggests
that in a whole variety of ways, sport and politics have become
entwined in the region. It is essential to recognise this political
dimension, because only then can strategies be developed both
to prevent politics from undermining sport's own agenda and to
realise any Community Relations potential therein.
Community Relations and sport in Northern Ireland is not an
issue that can be effectively approached in an uncoordinated and
piecemeal fashion. If it is to have optimum effect, it needs to
be approached systematically and this approach needs to operate
at several levels simultaneously.
At a central, institutional level sport needs to develop,
adopt and operationalise a Community Relations policy in Northern
Ireland which is informed, considered and realistic. Such a policy
would need to address both sides of the issue: pro-Community Relations
and anti-sectarianism. It would be desirable for this policy to
be developed jointly by the Community Relations Council and the
Sports Council for Northern Ireland in consultation with the Central
Community Relations Unit, the Department of Education for Northern
Ireland, local authorities, governing bodies of sport and other
relevant agencies and individuals.
There is a need to persuade the governing bodies of sport
that the introduction of a sound Community Relations policy could
work in their own interests. As things stand there are a series
of formal and informal barriers that affect the progress of many
young and talented athletes in Northern Ireland. Their choices
of what sports they play and whom they play them with are restricted
through their association with a particular cultural tradition.
With a little more openness and some determination these invisible
barriers can be and should be removed allowing optimum use to
be made of the limited reservoir of sporting talent that the region
possesses. Given its size and population, Northern Ireland does
remarkably well at all levels of sporting competition. The evidence
suggests that Northern Irelands sporting community could do much
better if religious labels and cultural traditions were not also
barriers to participation in certain Sports.
The impact which sport can have on community reconciliation
must not be over stated. By no means is all sport adversely affected
by the troubles. There are many things good about sport in Northern
Ireland and on many occasions it has proved to be a valuable community
resource. While it is true that more can be done to ensure that
organised sports have a cross-community role, it is important
to guard against overwhelming their sporting and recreational
aims with inflated Community Relations objectives. Sport in Northern
Ireland already has a number of important objectives related to
increasing participation and promoting excellence. These must
remain as priorities. Community Relations through sport can be
integrated as an important aim, but it should never be seen as
sports highest priority. As is the case with all initiatives that
are directed towards promoting reconciliation in Northern Ireland,
it is necessary to maintain a sense of proportion.
There is a need for all the organisations which promote sport
in the Province, including the schools and teacher training establishments,
to review their activities with a view to extending existing cross-community
links and developing new, longer term Community Relations initiatives.
Governing bodies should be encouraged to review the extent
to which any of their practices, policies, rules or regulations
offend those from a different cultural tradition. In addition
they should be encouraged to include a positive statement concerning
Community Relations in their respective constitutions. Also, where
possible, a Community Relations dimension should be introduced
within coaching development courses.
Sport focused Community Relations activities which take place
outside of the embrace of the governing bodies need to be encouraged.
They also need to be evaluated carefully with a view to establishing
principles of good practice which can be used in more general
policy formation. This grass-roots activity needs to be brought
within a recognisable framework which is both coordinated and
accountable. All 26 District Councils now have in place at least
one Community Relations Officer and many also employ Sports Development
Officers or their equivalents. This constitutes the obvious network
to use to achieve these ends.
In order to accurately identify problems and opportunities,
more needs to be learned about the role which sport currently
plays in the community. To achieve this a systematic programme
of research should be continued.
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