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Sport and Community Relations in Northern Ireland

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

Chapter 1
Sport and the Community
Chapter 2
The Social Demographics of Sport in Northern Ireland
Chapter 3
The Organisational Politics of Sport in Northern Ireland
Chapter 4
External Political Factors and Sport in Northern Ireland
Chapter 5
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 vice versa.

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 belong.

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 ends.

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.

Main Findings

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 division.

  • 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 resources.

  • 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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