Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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Sport and Community Relations
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 preference. (1) 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.