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Sport and Community Relations in Northern Ireland
John Sugden and Scott Harvie (1995)

Publication contents



In addition to the sample survey of sixteen sports, more detailed information was obtained from a small number of activities identified as being particularly suitable for case study purposes. Association football and cycling were selected due to their popularity across both communities and due to the fact that problems had arisen in each which could be seen as having important implications for the study of community relations in sport. Two other sports; boxing and hockey, were also examined although due to limitations of time and resources, these case studies had to be of a more general nature.

In the case studies on football and cycling special attention was paid to the relationship between Northern Ireland’s political conflict and/or community divisions and the sports concerned at grass-roots level. To illuminate the nature of this relationship each sport was studied in a particular local environment. In football’s case, North Belfast was chosen as a densely populated, predominantly working-class environment within which there has been a great deal of sectarian conflict. The two senior clubs from that area; Cliftonville and Crusaders, were spotlighted as these clubs have commonly been associated with different religious communities.

In cycling the focus was placed on the Bangor and North Down area, which in general offers a more affluent, middle-class environment. This area has been relatively free of sectarian conflict but during 1992 and 1993 Bangor’s commercial centre was bombed on three separate occasions. Since the division of cycling within Northern Ireland two cycling clubs have operated in the area; Toyota North Down affiliated to the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation and Velo Club Bangor, belonging to the Ulster Cycling Federation.

Association Football

The case study on football is divided into four sections. The first sets the scene by highlighting the social background to association football in Northern Ireland. The second looks at international soccer, in particular attitudes towards the two Irish national teams on the part of the different communities within the north and how these have developed in relation to the on going social and political conflict. The third focusses on domestic football at senior club level. The fourth locates Crusaders and Cliftonville within this context and, from the research carried out around these clubs, discusses the main issues which arise in respect of community relations.

The Social Background of Football

With the exception of the amalgam of Gaelic sports, association football is by some way the most popular of all those considered in this study. Its governing body reported there to be in excess of 25,000 people involved in the sport in an organised capacity. Of course there are many others who play the game outwith its organisational network; for example in five-a-side leagues in leisure centres across the province; on a casual basis at work, school or in leisure-time; and the whole sphere of women’s football which is separately organised.

At its highest level association football attracts sizeable numbers of spectators. Although attendance figures have been falling since a boom immediately after the 2nd World War crowds of between 10,000 and 15,000 have still been reported at particularly attractive or important matches involving clubs from the Irish League. Competitive international fixtures have also drawn crowds of this magnitude though recent regulations enforcing the closure of standing areas at such matches have, for the foreseeable future, removed the possibility of Northern Ireland’s attendances exceeding these bounds. In 1988 a World Cup clash with the Republic of Ireland attracted a crowd of 24,000(1). An identical fixture in November 1993 was restricted to a 10,500 attendance. However, bearing in mind the level of interest in the game, on which the Republic of Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup Finals depended, more than twice that figure could probably have been accommodated if space was available. Whatever the exact numbers, there is little doubt that a substantial proportion of Northern Ireland’s population take an active interest in the sport of association football.


The data from the sample survey suggests certain conclusions as to the nature of this section of the population. Firstly, it is overwhelmingly male. Women’s football exists on a very small scale compared with the men’s game, although signs of growth are apparent. Few women are to be observed spectating at senior football matches within Northern Ireland or to be found actively involved in supporters’ clubs or fanzine production. Women are also largely absent from club committees and administration with the exception of stereo-typical typist/receptionist/ancillary roles. In general, association football is a conservative, male preserve.

Although not predominant to the same extent, there appears to be more people from working-class backgrounds involved in the sport than from middle-class backgrounds. This bias is less likely to have effect on the administration of the game, due to the nature of the tasks concerned. However, in terms of participation and in respect of soccer’s support base the game does still seem to be rooted in working-class communities.

Whilst largely played by young men, football’s administrators and spectators tend to be distributed more widely amongst different age-groups. Nonetheless, with regard to supporters, those within the 16 to 40 age range appear to be more conspicuous in their presence, if not entirely in their numbers.

Both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities play an active role in the sport. Indeed, what makes this activity particularly susceptible to more detailed study is that "Soccer in Ireland is neither overtly exclusive, unlike Gaelic games, nor rhetorically democratic and practically exclusive, unlike Rugby Union"(2).

Despite this, the vast majority of clubs currently operating at senior level are associated to a greater or lesser degree with the Protestant community and are, by and large, administered and supported by people from such backgrounds. This is less likely to be the case at lower levels of the game. Nonetheless the fact that a substantial Protestant predominance exists at the most senior level of Northern Ireland’s highest profile cross-community sport may be seen as interesting, and, potentially, significant.

In examining developments in association football which may have some relevance to the field of community relations, two separate dimensions have been identified. One concerns international soccer and the other relates to club football within the province, particularly at senior level. Whilst obviously interrelated the fact that Irish league clubs have little input at international level in respect of playing and coaching staff; that most club competition is governed by a separate body (the Irish League) and that supporters of the national side (or sides) may have little or no interest in clubs playing within Northern Ireland may be considered to justify treating each sphere separately.

International Soccer

As has already been noted, it was some time after partition before the football authorities in Belfast acknowledged the division of Ireland in international terms. Until the early 1950s players were selected on an all-Ireland basis and it was not until the 1970s that the official practice of describing the side as ‘Ireland’ was dropped in favour of the more commonly acknowledged, ‘Northern Ireland’.

From 1926, following the breakaway by southern clubs and the setting up of the Dublin-based Football Association of Ireland (FAI), another international side designated as ‘Ireland’ operated in the arena of world soccer. As with the Belfast-based ‘Ireland’ players were selected on a thirty-two county basis. A number of players turned out for both national sides. Consequently, until the 1950s, "we had the spectacle of players appearing for 'Ireland' on a Saturday and the next week another 'Ireland'" (3). This is illustrated by the fact that 5 of the men in the (Republic of) Ireland side which gained a famous 2-0 victory over England at Goodison Park in 1949 were also part of the (Northern) Ireland team which had drawn 2-2 with England at the same venue in 1947 (4).

As football became more organised at world level and national sides from the British Isles began to participate in international competitions such as the World Cup, the ambiguity of the Irish situation became apparent. Political hostilities between the regimes in Belfast and Dublin during this period were particularly intense and it is perhaps not surprising that this was the time when "pressure...was brought to bear on certain Southern-born players...and the practice [of playing for both Irelands] ended"(5).

After the FAI’s attempts to have its national side designated by FIFA as the only legitimate ‘Ireland’ failed, tacit agreement was reached between the two bodies that the FAI should only select players born within their jurisdiction and the Irish Football Association (IFA) within theirs. In effect, the political reality of partition was at last being recognised in footballing terms. From this point on relations between the football authorities in Belfast and Dublin could perhaps best be described as cool but generally workable, sometimes in contrast to relations between their political counterparts.

On the soccer field, whether by accident or design, the two Irelands did not meet at senior level for the first half century of their dual existence. However, between 1978 and 1993 they have played six competitive internationals; two European Championship matches and four World Cup ties. They have also competed against one another in a variety of Under 21, Youth, Schoolboy and other representative fixtures.

Despite the growth in cross-border soccer contact, latent tensions and grievances have sometimes burst to the surface. The official match programme for the first ever senior international between north and south, staged in Dublin in September 1978 stated that "we in the Football Association of Ireland look forward to a continuation of our talks with the Irish Football the knowledge that an all-Ireland side...will be discussed"(6). The programme for the return match in Belfast in November 1979 contained articles emphasising that the split in Irish soccer had been precipitated from the south (7).

Little evidence exists concerning popular attitudes amongst Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in the north towards the two national football sides prior to the 1970s. This may be partially explained by the fact both sides achieved little sustained success during that time. The Republic of Ireland side aroused very limited interest in the south itself. Soccer lagged far behind Gaelic sports and rugby in terms of popular appeal and therefore could hardly be expected to excite the imaginations of football loving communities in the north, regardless of their political affiliations.

The Northern Ireland side was, as it always had been, mixed in terms of its religious make-up and the appeal of popular players from both backgrounds such as Pat Jennings and George Best helped encourage a substantial degree of cross-community backing. Nonetheless the fact Northern Ireland played its home matches at Windsor Park, the ground belonging to fiercely Protestant club, Linfield; located in the midst of one of the most stridently loyalist working-class communities and named after the British royal residence did little to encourage Catholics onto the terraces. Those who did attend have confirmed that the sectarian songs-and banners and pro-British and/or pro-Ulster regalia found there were hardly conducive to feelings of safety and harmony (8).

During the early 1980s the Northern Irish side enjoyed a spell of unprecedented success, winning two home international championship series and qualifying for successive World Cup Finals. With the exception of a few hard-line republican areas, both communities seem to have taken pride in this success, which reached its high point with a victory over hosts Spain in the 1982 World Cup Finals tournament. Indeed a focus of popular media coverage was the effect of Northern Ireland’s success in bringing the two communities together, juxtaposed against scenes from the previous summer, dominated by the H-Block protests.

However, as with other examples of sport being portrayed as a healer, once media attention faded and Northern Ireland’s footballing fortunes waned, little, if any, change was observed in the province’s divided community structure. In fact Northern Ireland’s decline in the second half of the 1980s appeared to be accompanied by the national side being increasingly claimed by hard-core loyalist elements as the exclusive property of the Protestant community. It has been suggested that "Windsor Park became an increasingly unfriendly place for Catholics...symbolized by the message ‘Taigs Keep Out’ daubed on a wall near one of the approach routes to the ground"(9).

This has coincided with a remarkable rise in the profile and fortunes of the Republic of Ireland’s national football team, ironically under the guidance of an English manager. Whilst the most popular sports in the Republic remain those under the control of the GAA, the success of the national soccer side on the world stage, both in the 1988 European Championships and 1990 World Cup, has produced levels of interest and excitement rarely, if ever, seen around these more parochial activities. The limelight that has reflected on the Irish nation in the wake of such footballing glories as the win over old enemy England in the 1988 European finals has also attracted nationalists from the north to support the side in growing numbers. The result has been a polarisation of national soccer allegiance between Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Northern Ireland.

Ironically this has happened at a time when the playing squads of each national side have become more cosmopolitan than ever before. Roman Catholic players have continued to figure prominently in the Northern Ireland set-up. However, in contrast to earlier periods, some of these players appear to have been singled out for sectarian abuse by Windsor Park crowds, it has been suggested, as scapegoats for the team’s failures. Former Celtic player Anton Rogan, a Catholic from West Belfast, is often cited as an example. Nonetheless it is questionable to what degree such abuse is motivated by sectarian hatred rather than by playing concerns. The most sustained barracking of Rogan followed a crucial World Cup match in Spain where the player had scored an own-goal and was generally considered (like several other individuals) to have performed poorly.

The Republic of Ireland’s success has been allied to a very liberal use of FIFA’ s rules governing players’ qualification for international duty. By basing selection on eligibility for an Irish passport, thus including all who may lay claim to an Irish grandparent, the Republic have cast a wide net over players at the highest levels of the English and Scottish leagues. Less than one-third of the Republic’s squad for the 1990 World Cup were actually born in Ireland. This has been a bone of some contention to the IFA which until 1993 based its selections on the place of birth of player’s or their parents in accordance with along-standing agreement between the representing Northern Ireland, a fact which did not escape the attention of their manager; "well, at least our team is of Irish extraction and not full of mercenaries"(10).

The decision by the four British football associations to open up their selection processes by adopting FIFA’s passport rule has not stemmed the controversy. This is due to the fact that players from Northern Ireland may hold British and/or Irish passports. A particular problem appears to be arising at youth level where young players largely from the nationalist community in Northern Ireland are choosing to represent the Republic, much to the displeasure of Northern Ireland officials (11).

This development may simply reflect the polarisation in attitudes towards the respective Irish national teams amongst the two communities within the north. A survey carried out in 1991 showed that when asked to place the 5 national sides from the British Isles in order of preference, 91 % of Catholic respondents placed the Republic of Ireland and 88% of Protestant respondents placed Northern Ireland first. 79% of Catholic respondents against 35% of Protestant respondents supported an all-Irish team. 76% of Catholic respondents claimed to have had more satisfaction from the achievements of the Republic in the 1990 World Cup compared to Northern Ireland’s success in 1982, while 69% of Protestants stated that they had taken more satisfaction from the latter (12).

However the same evidence suggests that the polarisation of attitudes is by no means complete. 20% of Protestant respondents selected the Republic and 54% of Catholic respondents chose Northern Ireland as second preferences amongst the five ‘nations’. 23% of Protestants and 18% of Catholics included in the survey claimed to have obtained equal satisfaction from the achievements of the Republic of Ireland in the 1990 World Cup and Northern Ireland eight years earlier. This suggests that when no zero-sum choice has to be made fairly sizeable elements in both communities may not be averse to cheering on either Ireland especially on a world stage. Having said this, when the two Irish soccer nations are placed in direct, head-to-head confrontation with one another, as has happened frequently over recent years, the loyalties of supporters are more closely determined than ever by their community background and political affiliations.

Some concluding points may be seen to arise from events surrounding the international match between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland staged in Belfast in November 1993. As with their previous Belfast encounter, played in September 1988 in the midst of an inquiry into the controversial shooting of three Provisional IRA activists in Gibraltar, the 1993 clash came at a time of heightened political tension and terrorist activity in the province. This prompted calls from certain quarters, most vociferously the popular press, for FIFA to ban the game and order it to be played out with Northern Ireland (13). Such promptings are reported to have received tacit support from the FAI although their motives may also have reflected more practical concerns about their side’s prospects in this vital fixture. Ultimately FIFA, under pressure from the IFA, allowed the game to go ahead in Belfast. Like the 1988 encounter a major security operation was mounted and the match passed off peacefully.

Whilst terrorist action constituted a live, though remote, possibility, what made this game so potentially dangerous in respect of spectator violence was the risk of large numbers of supporters from nationalist communities in the north attending alongside Northern Ireland’s hardcore loyalist support. As in 1988 this did not happen to any noticeable extent. Clearly the vast majority of nationalists were happy to watch the game from the safety of their homes or pubs and clubs. It is perhaps a reflection of the extent to which political divisions permeate international soccer in Ireland that whilst flags and banners from Belfast have been evident when the Republic’s football team have visited such unlikely destinations as Albania and Lithuania and are likely to be seen in abundance at the World Cup Finals in the USA. the one soccer location which they are currently unable or unwilling to penetrate is Belfast itself.

From the perspective of the Northern Ireland supporters the fact the match went on in Belfast at all may be seen as an important boost whilst events on and off the field may be considered a qualified success. Indeed there appears some black irony in the fact that whilst press headlines in the run-up to the Belfast game screamed; "Don’t risk this game of death!"(14) and media attention focussed, quite understandably, on security matters, it was the other World Cup clash staged in Britain on that evening, between Wales and Romania, which saw a fatality occur as a result of crowd disorder. One wonders at the reaction there would have been in the media had this incident happened at Windsor Park.

Bearing in mind the context in which the match was played, it is not surprising both that the behaviour of Northern Ireland football fans came under the microscope and perhaps also that verdicts should vary according to the political and national allegiances of those making them. As might be expected trappings of the crowd’s Ulster and/or British identity and sectarian songs and slogans were much in evidence. However whether this goes far beyond the atmosphere of intimidation normally anticipated at matches between major local rivals remains a matter of interpretation.

Their 1988 encounter, when standing areas were open and a capacity crowd in attendance, was considered remarkable for its passivity by some home supporters; "I expected an atmosphere of tension and hatred...but it was one of the tamest Spion Kops that I’ve ever stood on"(15). This contrasts sharply with the view of the crowd as ‘football’s bigots’ by a Dublin journalist (16). Similarly a vigorous correspondence on the alleged extremism of the crowd at Windsor Park followed the 1993 encounter (17). The sight of the Northern Ireland manager gesturing to the stands for more vocal encouragement of his team produced angry responses in certain southern quarters. A Fine Gael TD was quoted as saying; "He went out of his way to provoke a crowd who were already showing extraordinary bigotry. I have never seen anything like it before"(18). The IFA’s reaction that "Last night was a wonderful example of sport in Northern Ireland"(19) perhaps confirms that footballing relations between the two parts of Ireland are still far from easy. The two sides have been drawn together once more in the qualifying series for the 1996 European Championships. This seems set to keep the issues and tensions they give rise to firmly in the public eye.

What may be seen as more disturbing, particularly since the subject has been given relatively little coverage to date in Northern Ireland’s sporting context, is the racist abuse directed at Terry Phelan, the Republic of Ireland’s coloured full-back, throughout the game. Bearing in mind that this has also happened to players in the Irish League such as Antoine Coly and Joey Cunningham, a latent problem beyond sectarianism may be lurking.

Domestic Football in Northern Ireland

As association football is an important social activity to both communities within Northern Ireland, particularly amongst young working-class men who are considered most likely to be at the ‘cutting edge’ of community conflict, it is hardly surprising that the domestic game should have been affected by the province’s political violence. The influence of the ‘Troubles’ on clubs playing within Northern Ireland has taken a number of different forms, dependent on the prevailing political situation and the level of competition concerned.

At lower levels, for example in district leagues, there is perhaps the broadest base of participation in terms of numbers involved in the game from both religious communities. However due to a blend of demographic, cultural and (to a greater or lesser degree) political factors, some leagues, as in the Newry area, are predominantly Catholic whilst others, for example in Lisburn, are largely Protestant. As teams tend to come from local, working-class communities, the extent to which mixing takes place is restricted further.

Where teams made up of players from one religious background compete in leagues predominantly associated with the other community serious problems can arise, particularly at times of heightened political tension and/or increased violence. In 1993 a club operating in the Dunmurry and district league had to withdraw from competition for a time as its perceived associations with the Catholic community led to players being targeted for sectarian attacks. Indeed a gun was reported to have been brandished at one of its matches (20). It should be stressed, however, that such incidents are exceptional. For the most part football at lower levels is "a game of mass participation, played by Protestant and Catholic, Unionist and Republican, sometimes separately but frequently together. Thus...despite the way in which it is administered, soccer brings people together across geographical, political and cultural boundaries"(21).

The situation at senior level is somewhat more complex. The official estimate of levels of participation by the two religious communities considered there to be a slight Catholic advantage within the Irish League. Whilst a general tendency to exaggerate Catholic representation may be apparent here, the game, with one or two exceptions, does seem to be fairly well mixed in respect of those playing at senior level. In contrast the vast majority of clubs operating in the Irish League are perceived to be associated with the Protestant community due to their backgrounds, administrations arid/or support bases. In the course of the case-studies of Protestant and Catholic supporters both sets identified a minimum of 70% of Irish league clubs as "Protestant".

As has been acknowledged, this Protestant predominance has become more marked in recent times following the departures of Belfast Celtic and Derry City, the two most prominent clubs associated with the Catholic community. The demise of the Belfast club is sometimes held to show that a successful ‘Catholic’ team could not compete equally, if at all, in Northern Irish football. One of their historians considers Belfast Celtic’s decision to withdraw from league football in 1949 as being "unpalatable but necessary...By doing so they undoubtedly saved a number of people from being seriously injured" (22).

The political instability and violence of the last 25 years, has, to many observers, reinforced this perception. The idea of attempting to increase and improve cross-community contact by pitting major football clubs from both backgrounds together is held to be naive and potentially dangerous. "If the bridge-building theory were correct, what better contribution could football make to a resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland than to stage regular matches between Derry and Linfield? Well, perhaps not"(23).

The trend towards senior level football in Northern Ireland becoming a Protestant preserve was consolidated during the early years of the ‘Troubles’ with Derry City folding temporarily following the disturbances surrounding a match with Ballymena United at the Brandywell; Distillery being exiled from their ground in Grosvenor Road, Belfast; and the imposition of the ban on Cliftonville-Linfield fixtures after disorder around Solitude in April 1970. On top of these factors there was the more shadowy influence of sectarianism on the game, present both in the general environment within which football took place and, allegedly, in the operations of specific clubs within the Irish League.

On the loyalist side of the community divide Linfield had become an increasingly exclusivist club and their supporters were quick to emphasise their sectarian ‘purity’ viz-a-viz main rivals, Glentoran. However, it should be borne in mind that such a policy, assuming it was pursued, was relatively short-lived compared, for example, to that of Glasgow Rangers. It is also the case, as a former Linfield manager pointed out, that signing a Catholic, particularly at the height of sectarian violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s would have required a major security operation to guarantee the individual’s safety (24).

As for Glentoran, players from both communities have consistently played for the team. It has been claimed that some Catholic supporters turned to Glentoran after Belfast Celtic’s demise but, in more recent times, Glentoran’s support appears to have been overwhelmingly Protestant. Given the respective records of the two best supported ‘Protestant’ clubs it is a reminder of the complexity of the situation that Linfield should, in 1988, sign a coloured Catholic player, Antinone Coly, on a year’ s loan and that he should receive by far the worst racial and sectarian abuse at Glentoran. The Linfield manager of the time was reported as commenting; "The worst of all was that it was premeditated. We’ve played Cliftonville several times and they are always tough games. But the Cliftonville fans didn’t bring this sort of thing into it"(25).

However, comments like these should be seen in the context of the intense and on going rivalry between the two clubs which is held to illustrate how "clannish sectarian divisions expressed through football are cross-cut by tribal affiliations grounded in territory"(26). Both Linfield and Glentoran fans would join together in their support for the Northern Ireland team and certain elements at both clubs would also follow the fortunes of Scotland’s leading ‘Protestant’ club, Glasgow Rangers.

Perhaps the most that can be said is that such intra-sectarian rivalry does have some potential, as one of the few cross-cutting alignments in Northern Irish society, to detract from the intensity of the main sectarian cleavage. It is also possible that recent developments such as Linfield signing Catholic players from both sides of the Irish border may have some moderating effect, albeit tenuous and transitory. One writer noted that "In previous years the majority of Linfield supporters’ songs...had been about religion, politics and terrorist atrocities whereas this season football appears to have been uppermost in their minds"(27). Whilst, given the experience of the national team, this view may be somewhat idealistic, the evidence does certainly suggest that the actions of clubs can have wider implications for the community.

On the nationalist side of the community divide what mass support there had been for association football when Belfast Celtic and Derry City were playing subsequently dispersed. Some people appear to have lost interest in the game altogether, reinforcing the division between Gaelic sports and those perceived as British. Others confined their support to Glasgow Celtic, significant numbers making regular trips across the Irish Sea, as well as to English clubs with less obvious sectarian associations, Manchester United, due to their Irish connections, attracting particular interest.

Most of the remaining nationalist football supporters in the Belfast area appear to have adopted Cliftonville as their favoured team. They play in an area of North Belfast which was mixed until the onset of the present ‘Troubles’ when sectarian violence resulted in the part of the Cliftonville Road closest to their Solitude ground becoming predominantly Catholic. Significantly, it was during this time, when mass disturbances were common, that the ban on Linfield playing at Solitude was imposed. The proximity of Protestant working-class areas was thought to make the fixture too dangerous for fear of igniting a major sectarian conflagration.

As the nature of the Northern Ireland conflict shifted towards more institutionalised guerilla warfare on top of a polarised community structure tentative efforts were made to advance the interests of the nationalist community as far as their participation in senior level soccer was concerned. There were discussions about the possibility of Derry City being re-admitted to the Irish League and representations, backed by both sets of supporters, were made about restoring the Cliftonville-Linfield fixture. Security problems were consistently raised as the stumbling block. The end result, however, was to exacerbate the sense of injustice felt by nationalist supporters which ultimately may be seen to re-inforce the polarisation of communities within Northern Ireland.

This sense of injustice is to some extent based upon and certainly heightened by tactics adopted by police and army when the two communities do come into contact around the soccer field. Encounters between Cliftonville and teams with Protestant associations have been marked by allegations of differential treatment on the part of the security forces (28). This was observed in its simplest form at Cliftonville’ s two most important cup matches of season 1992/3; the Gold Cup Final against Portadown held at Windsor Park in November 1992; and the Irish Cup Semi-Final against Ards staged at The Oval, Glentoran’s East Belfast ground in April 1993. At both games police mingled relatively easily with one section of the crowd, dressed in normal uniform whilst Cliftonville fans were policed by means of a line of officers dressed in riot gear with dogs and handlers grouped behind.

Similarly, until the repeal of flags and emblems legislation in the late 1980s Cliftonville matches were frequently disrupted by violent clashes as police snatch squads attempted to remove tricolours from their supporters whilst union jacks, Ulster flags and, on occasion, provocative banners proliferated amongst rival Protestant crowds. Success on the part of the Cliftonville side and/or more attractive fixtures such as games with Linfield have tended to inflate their support with elements from the nationalist community not normally seen at matches who appear intent on confronting the security forces. However there is little evidence of the authorities adopting tactics which attempt to avert such confrontations. Once again the end-result is often a spiral of perceived injustice, violence, counter-violence and polarisation which, when placed in the wider social and political context, further reduces the prospect of improving relations between the communities in Northern Ireland.

Events surrounding the Donegal Celtic-Linfield Irish Cup clash of February 1990 may be seen as providing a case-in-point. Donegal Celtic are an Intermediate League side (between Amateur and B Division status) with an average attendance of less than 200, whose significance lies in the symbolic manifestations of nationalism in its name, club colours (green and white hoops as with Glasgow Celtic) and location, being situated in Suffolk in nationalist West Belfast. The violence which erupted around this game is commonly documented as a further example of Northern Ireland’s deep sectarian conflict. However it may also be considered as an example of the worst ways in which community relations issues are handled in sport.

As soon as the two clubs were drawn together statements were made by local politicians and officials within the sport regarding the consequences of Linfield supporters travelling into Suffolk which might be interpreted as liable to induce a state of moral panic. Fears were fuelled by sections of the media and, despite both clubs’ willingness to meet the original fixture commitment, options such as playing the game early in the morning, without visiting supporters or behind closed doors were apparently disregarded. Instead it was decided that the game should be switched to Windsor Park where the security forces "could provide...the necessary policing for the protection of public safety and order"(29).

The match generated a crowd of close to 13,000, almost three times Linfield’s average attendance. To what extent the prior publicity, including that/arising from an unsuccessful court action by Donegal Celtic to have the tie played in Suffolk, helped attract elements only interested in creating disorder is open to conjecture. Whatever the causes of the violence it was inevitable that the apparent contradictions in the way the security forces handled it would polarise attitudes in the two communities. Television pictures carried worldwide showed Protestant supporters breaking through inadequately protected positions and even assaulting Donegal Celtic players whilst riot squads and plastic bullets were being used in the enclosed space where the Catholic supporters were situated, Whilst to one side events justified switching the game, to the other they seemed to show that "there is no future for us in Northern Ireland football"(30).

During the subsequent two seasons Donegal Celtic were again not permitted to play at home in cup ties against Ards and Glentoran. In the former case they decided to withdraw from the competition whilst the latter game passed off largely without incident when staged, by mutual agreement, at Glentoran’s ground. In 1991 and 1993 Donegal Celtic made unsuccessful applications to be admitted to the League of Ireland. Perhaps understandably southern-based soccer officials appear unwilling to become involved in Belfast’s political divisions. However, as things stand, the prospects for Donegal Celtic’s advancement within the Northern Irish football set-up seem distinctly limited, given the reluctance of the authorities to allow senior teams, likely to include B Division sides such as the RUC, to travel to Suffolk.

Similarly, Derry City, in the early 1980s, were not permitted to re-join the Irish League. However, they were accepted into the League of Ireland in 1985 and within 4 years had won the championship. Since these glory days Derry’s fortunes have declined, local interest has waned and financial difficulties have been encountered, giving rise to speculation about a possible return to Northern Irish football. It remains to be seen whether Derry City would be able or even be allowed to participate normally within the Irish League. If this were to be achieved or more limited steps were to be taken to demonstrate an even-handed approach to nationalist clubs then the consequences for social and political progress would surely be positive. As an outside observer present at the peaceful Glentoran-Donegal Celtic encounter commented; "The game is not free from its environment, indeed is often a product of it. Even if not a force for good - although it surely was today - it can still be a welcome release"(31).

Domestic Football at Local Level

The issues given rise to here were addressed in a local case-study focussing on the two senior clubs in North Belfast, Cliftonville and Crusaders. Since the common perception (not least amongst sporting bodies) of the problems which existed within this activity was of spectator violence with sectarian connotations, it was decided to interview a number of supporters from these two clubs in some depth.

In demographic terms North Belfast is a hotch-potch of urban working-class areas populated virtually exclusively by one or other religious community, such as Protestant Skegoniel around Crusaders Seaview ground and the Catholic Ardoyne close to Cliftonville’s home. Some areas such as Oldpark and Cliftonville itself contain clusters of streets occupied by Protestants and other clusters occupied by Catholics. Due to this situation and the warren-like nature of streets in these areas they have been particularly susceptible to sectarian attacks in the form of rioting (largely at the start of the ‘Troubles’), terrorist shootings often of a tit-for-tat nature, and intimidation.

Crusaders main support base tends to be located along the shore of Belfast Lough, stretching from the working-class and fiercely loyalist communities around York Road along the Shore Road to the more middle-class but still largely Protestant areas such as Whiteabbey and Jordanstown. With the exception of a halcyon spell in the late 1960s and early 1970s when one championship and two Irish cups were won, Crusaders have met with limited success and would be considered one of Belfast’s smaller clubs.

At least partially as a result of this they have lost a great deal of potential support in the wider locality to more successful and/or higher profile clubs. Linfield, with its Protestant tradition and history of success, has drawn particular support from working-class, loyalist areas of North Belfast, as indeed it has from loyalist communities throughout the city. However, during the early 1990s Linfield’ s fortunes faltered and Crusaders enjoyed something of a footballing revival. In 1992/93 the North Belfast side made a serious bid to lift the Irish championship and ultimately were only thwarted on goal difference by a resurgent Linfield.

Cliftonville have a history of some success, however most of it is confined to the late 19th and early 20th century. Since the war their only achievement of note has been one Irish cup success, in 1979. Until the current conflict began Cliftonville attracted widespread support from their locality, which, as it was fairly well mixed, drew both Protestant and Catholic spectators. The demographic changes brought about by the subsequent sectarian disorder led to the club’s support becoming almost exclusively Catholic since Protestants no longer seemed to feel secure and/or welcome in the vicinity of the Solitude football ground. Despite this the structure of the club, its administration and playing staff have remained mixed, reflected in the fact that for several years until late 1992 Cliftonville had an overtly, loyalist manager. The club had a poor season in 1992/93 but after their long-serving manager s resignation they did go on to reach the semi-final of the Irish cup.

Interviews with supporters from the two clubs were conducted during the late summer and autumn of 1993. Both clubs’ unofficial fanzines were written to asking if they wished to participate in the exercise but neither responded so a number of supporters’ were approached informally and agreed to help. Whilst their views cannot, of course, be interpreted as representative of Crusaders or Cliftonville supporters as a whole they do highlight the areas where there is common ground between football spectators from the two communities and those where there is the most complete polarisation. By and large, interviews were open-ended, allowing supporters to comment on what issues they felt were important. Recent copies of the two clubs’ fanzines; ‘Where Cornerboys Collect’ (Crusaders) and ‘The Wee Red’ (Cliftonville) were also perused.

Those supporters interviewed were asked briefly about their own background and that of their respective clubs. In all cases respondents were drawn from what have been perceived as common social backgrounds for football supporters; young (in the 16-30 age range); male; and from working-class or lower middle-class origins. All had been supporting their respective clubs for more than ten years although with occasional breaks and had been introduced to the game by family and/or friends. All were regular attenders at the home games of their clubs and occasional to regular attenders at away games.

With regard to the social background of each club’s support, respondents considered there to be a working-class predominance; 70-30 for Cliftonville and 60-40 for Crusaders. They also believed there to be a strong male predominance; 95-5 for Cliftonville and 90-10 for Crusaders. As with the sporting bodies involved in the sample survey interviewees found it difficult to differentiate between age-groups but considered most supporters to be in the younger age ranges, particularly between 16 and 40. In respect of religion the differences between the two clubs were most clear-cut; Crusaders support was estimated to be 95% Protestant and Cliftonville’s support to be 99% Catholic. However both sets of respondents perceived the vast majority of all Irish League clubs’ support bases to be predominantly Protestant.

The issues on which the two club’s supporters were invited to express their views were again divided between those to do with senior club football in Northern Ireland and those associated with international soccer. On the domestic front interviewees were asked about violent incidents at games they had attended, the nature of policing and security at matches and the general effect of the Northern Ireland conflict on the game. They were also questioned as to how they saw their own club and their North Belfast rivals in respect of other major clubs associated with the Protestant and Catholic communities. They were then asked their feelings on particular issues; the prospects of Derry City being re-admitted to the Irish League; the restoration of the Cliftonville-Linfield fixture and attempts to improve community relations through football.

With regard to violent incidents, the responses suggested that whilst such incidents occurred sporadically at matches involving Crusaders, they were a regular occurrence at Cliftonville fixtures. Indeed Cliftonville supporters travelled to a number of away games expecting to be attacked in some form or other by elements of the home club’s support and/or local youths and those expectations rarely went unfulfilled. Bearing in mind that the clubs where the Cliftonville respondents had seen no trouble were those few likely to have mixed or largely Catholic supports this suggests, as perhaps might be expected, that the violence has less to do with football and is more a product of the general bigotry and sectarianism in society.

In fairness it has to be pointed out, as Cliftonville supporters admitted, that followers of clubs with Protestant associations have also been attacked when they have travelled to Cliftonville. The most well-publicised example in recent years occurred around a match with Portadown on the eve of tercentenary celebrations in September 1990. In this case however an unexpectedly large contingent of visiting supporters seems to have upset the security arrangements which existed. This perhaps suggests that with foresight and contingency planning on the part of the authorities, incidents on this scale can be averted.

On the related issue of the policing of football matches, Crusaders fans expressed moderate satisfaction with the ways this has been carried out. However Crusaders fanzine has made mild criticism of police inactivity in respect of reports of homes in the Skegoniel area being attacked by Cliftonville fans on their way to the Seaview ground. As might be expected Cliftonville supporters are more outspoken in their criticisms of police control of their matches. At some away games police protection against attacks is felt to be inadequate or non-existent although there is an acknowledgement that even if more protection was given during the match violence is still likely to occur on the way to or from the ground. Perhaps this again reflects that the nature of the problem is not confined to football.

Citing matches with Linfield as an example the Cliftonville supporters reported their sense of grievance at being prevented from staging home matches heightened by the treatment they receive at and around Windsor Park. For ‘away’ games at Windsor the Cliftonville fans are confined to the uncovered standing area to the west of the ground whilst the grandstands are used solely by Linfield supporters. More recently some Cliftonville supporters have been permitted to use a corner of the new North Stand at their ‘home’ fixtures.

They were also unhappy at the level of protection offered as their supporters were escorted by police through loyalist areas on the way to the ground. They claimed that while the police took no action at missiles and other objects being thrown at them by local youths, they reacted harshly and often indiscriminately to any perceived dissent or wrong-doing in their groups. They felt that the fact police were kitted out for a riot had an intimidating effect whilst the presence of many casual supporters who would relish confrontational situations provided the security forces with justification for their heavy-handed tactics.

There are obviously some contradictions in the views expressed here, inadequate police protection being highlighted on the one hand and excessive manpower and insensitive tactics on the other. However, what may be discerned at the root of such criticisms is a feeling that double standards are being applied to football supporters from the two communities. Those from the Catholic community feel they have been identified as the real security threat and been stamped upon by the authorities whilst at the same time little has been done to prevent violent attacks from Protestant supporters, for example in a grenade being thrown at Cliftonville fans during a match against Linfield in November 1991. At the very least this directs attention to the special problems involved in reconciling order with freedom in a society where a divided and, to some degree, polarised community structure exists.

Both sets of supporters were asked to identify their preferences in respect of how they would wish an Irish Premier League made up of 5 clubs: Crusaders and Cliftonville; the two leading Protestant clubs, Linfield and Glentoran; and the only other major ‘Catholic’ club, Derry City to finish. The responses for the two sets of respondents are set out below in Table I.

Table 1 - Preferences between Northern Ireland clubs

1(a): Crusaders Supporters 1(b): Cliftonville Supporters





Derry City

Derry City









If expectations were for the order of preferences to simply reflect the relationship between the likely religious background of respondents and the religious associations of the clubs concerned then these have only been partially realised. In the case of the Cliftonville supporters there is a clearer split in preferences between Catholic and Protestant clubs and the order in which the latter was ranked does reflect how sectarian the three clubs were perceived to be. However, in the case of Crusaders supporters, more pragmatic concerns were brought to bear. The fact Derry City did not operate in the same league and as a result there was no accumulated rivalry or hostility with them may have influenced their choice as second preference. Similarly Crusaders record both on and off the field against their 3 Belfast rivals was cited as the main factor in determining preferences between them.

The trend which might be seen to emerge from the responses thus far is that while practical and/or sporting concerns appear uppermost in the minds of Protestant supporters issues of a political nature are much more to the fore amongst Catholic supporters. This difference maybe partially explained by the choice of clubs; despite recent successes Crusaders would still rank as one of the smaller Protestant clubs and would be less likely to attract supporters on the basis of their loyalist heritage than, for example, Linfield. In contrast Cliftonville are the only club with Catholic associations operating in Belfast and the only prominent Catholic side in the Irish League. This is reflected in the fact that their support is more widely dispersed through nationalist areas of Belfast, from Ardoyne in the north to Short Strand in the east and Finaghy and Poleglass in the south of the city.


However, beyond this there does appear to be some residual alienation on the part of the Cliftonville supporters. When asked the question posed to governing bodies in the sample survey regarding the extent to which the Northern Ireland conflict impinged on the sport, Crusaders supporters provided an estimate of 3 on the 5 point scale whilst the Cliftonville respondents selected 5. The former estimate was identical to that offered by the IFA. This view of Catholic supporters as more politicised and more alienated is borne out by the statement issued in early 1992 by Cliftonville Supporters Clubs which criticised various aspects of the organisation and operation of the game in Northern Ireland. They said, "Over the last 20 years Cliftonville and their long-suffering supporters have had to endure countless examples of discrimination and double-standards from both the football authorities and the security forces"(32).

Despite these apparent differences in attitude, responses from both sets of supporters to quest ions about specific ‘Political’ issues within the sport were, to a degree, similar. On the question of Derry City’s re-admission to the Irish League, both Cliftonville and Crusaders respondents were strongly in favour. Both considered that this would provide a major boost for football in Northern Ireland However, when probed further as to the practicalities of Derry Competing in this environment differences did emerge. Whilst Crusaders fans felt that matches between Derry and Linfield might pose Problems they considered that these would not be insurmountable Cliftonville Supporters, pointing to their own experiences believed that there would almost certainly be major trouble if Derry were to be re-admitted They also thought that the Irish League would not want the bother of having them back.

A follow-up question as to whether a successful club with a large Catholic support should compete in Northern Ireland today elicited similar responses. Crusaders respondents felt the problems which might arise could be overcome whilst Cliftonville supporters considered that such a club could compete but whatever success it achieved would only create the potential for more trouble. In support of this view they pointed to problems which had arisen when Cliftonville played in the Irish Cup semi-final in 1993.

Supporters were also invited to express their views on the restoration of the Cliftonville infield fixture at Solitude. Again, both Crusaders and Cliftonville respondents were strongly in favour of this development. However, as with the Derry City issue, when questioned further on the topic very different reasons for supporting the restoration were offered Crusaders fans were Primarily Concerned with the unfair advantage the extra home game (or games) gave Linfield Bearing in mind that their side had just lost the championship on goal difference to Linfield the fact that their Opponents had this advantage may be seen as of particular Concern on a practical level. Their attitude can perhaps best be summarised as, "If every other team has to go there, why not Linfield?"

Cliftonville Supporters, in contrast considered the ban fundamentally unjust in principle and an example of prejudice and discrimination against their own club. They recognised that the fixture would need special Consideration by the authorities but thought there was no insurmountable problem with the location and Pointed out that special arrangements for games against Glentoran and Crusaders had worked successfully. Such options as making the game all-ticket, playing the match in the morning and/or bringing in the Linfield fans via certain authorised routes existed.

They believed that with certain security measures the game could be played without giving rise to major disruption. However the longer the ban went on the more difficult it would become to lift it. They also pointed out that in normal circumstances the size of crowd concerned would be relatively small whilst the authorities in mainland Britain were perfectly capable of handling attendances 5 or 10 times larger, a prime example being Celtic v Rangers.

Certainly, in respect of this particular issue, there can be no mistaking the strength of feeling amongst the Cliftonville supporters who are directly affected by the ban. It is perceived as an indefensible anachronism since the circumstances which led to its imposition, the mass sectarian disturbances of the late 1960s and early 1970s have long been absent. It also appears that lifting the ban would not antagonise feelings in the Protestant community where football supporters, for more practical reasons, favour, or at least do not object to the Solitude fixture being restored. Evidence from Linfield fanzines suggests that they would also support the Cliftonville game going ahead since the ban is seen as a slight on their supporters.

The difficulty in lifting the ban appears to be two-fold. First, it is unclear what the reaction of the football authorities would be if security clearance were to be given. The restoration of the fixture, particularly the first time it is replayed, would present problems, which past experience suggests the authorities would find most unwelcome. Second, the lifting of the ban, due to the publicity such a move would engender, risks becoming a highly political issue, along the same lines as the venue of the Donegal Celtic-Linfield match. If the issue was to be taken up by politicians on either side of the community divide the likely consequences are a polarisation of attitudes, increasing the potential for predictions of sectarian violence around the match to become self-fulfilling prophecies. If these difficulties are overcome, the lifting of the Solitude ban would surely be a positive step in paving the way for better community relations through sport. Before any major initiatives can work there has to be and, perhaps more importantly, has to be seen to be an even playing field.

Directly questioned about the merits of community relations initiatives in football both sets of supporters are highly sceptical. Neither believed that formal initiatives would make a significant difference bearing in mind the long-standing bitter rivalries between supporters on different sides of the community divide and the nature of the wider environment in Northern Ireland. Cliftonville fans suggested that the most that could be expected would be to bring people together for 90 minutes and they doubted whether people from the two communities really wanted to be integrated.

Some further questions were asked, attempting to gauge the views of the different sets of supporters in respect of international soccer. First, respondents were invited to state their preferences amongst the 5 national sides in the British Isles. A specific question was then posed as to whether or not there should be an all-Irish side in international competition. Finally, reactions to the selection policies of the two Irish national football squads were canvassed.

Generally, differences between respondents from the different footballing camps were deepest and most explicit as far as the international soccer domain was concerned. Both sets of supporters were also asked to identify their preferences in a fictional championship of the British Isles, featuring the four British ‘home’ nations and the Republic of Ireland. This aimed to replicate work done in 1991 from random samples of Protestant and Catholic respondents (33). The responses from the two sets of supporters are shown below in Table 2.

Table 2 - Preferences Between ‘British’ National Sides

1(a): Crusaders Supporters 1(b): Cliftonville Supporters


N Ireland

Rep of Ireland











Rep of Ireland

N Ireland

Whilst both sets of supporters held identical preferences in respect of the three national sides from the British mainland, there was a complete polarisation of preferences with regard to the two Irelands. This seems to reinforce the view that whilst out with their own national concerns there is substantial common ground between people from the two communities in Northern Ireland, when issues concerning nationality rear their head there is precious little room for compromise or manoeuvre.

The more qualitative reactions to the two Irish national football teams tell a similar story. Questioned on the merits of an all-Irish structure for their sport and having one national side as in rugby union, the Crusaders-supporting respondents were totally against. They claimed that in an all-Irish team very few players from the north would be selected. They pointed to Northern Ireland’s success in the 1982 World Cup and how both communities had united behind them, emphasising their pride in the side’s achievements, particularly since it came from such a small province. They feared that the status of Northern Irish football would be lost in its absorption in an all-Irish set up and explicitly voiced concerns that it might be seen as a step towards unity in the wider political domain.

Some of the respondents who supported Cliftonville mentioned having gone to see the Northern Irish team play in the 1970s and early 1980s but said that they had been put off by the sectarian atmosphere at-the games. Although the team was mixed, it’s supporters appeared to be 100% Protestant and they felt intimidated merely standing on the terracing at Windsor Park. There was some difference of opinion as to whether the footballing decline of the Northern Irish team had contributed to a significant degree to their alienation. It was acknowledged that the recent success of the Republic of Ireland team had increased their interest although they claimed always to have prefered it to Northern Ireland. On the subject of there being an all-Irish team the Cliftonville supporters said that in theory it would be a very good thing and they would love to see this happen but considered such a development to be totally unrealistic due to the politics of the Irish situation.

Differences in responses concerning the international selection policies of the two Irish footballing associations were, once again, wide. Crusaders supporters were highly critical of the Republic of Ireland’s flexible approach, questioning the Irish credentials of many players in their team. However, conversely, they thought Northern Ireland had not done enough to attract players in the past and supported the change to more flexible rules as long as they did not bring in too many players born outside the province. In contrast, Cliftonville supporting respondents said they had no problems with the Republic’s pragmatic approach. They considered it to be a good thing to bring in the best players of Irish descent who were available.

Over the range of issues associated with international soccer the views of respondents from the two different communities in Northern Ireland appear to be almost totally polarised. Protestant supporters seem to offer unequivocal backing for the Northern Ireland team and to reject any suggestion of a move towards an all-Irish setup out of hand. Catholic supporters claim to have been alienated by the sectarian nature of support for the Northern Ireland side and solely to be interested in following the fortunes of the football team representing the Republic. Whilst favouring an all-Irish structure for the game they believe it would be wholly impractical in the prevailing political climate.

What this suggests, again perhaps not surprisingly, is that in terms of bringing the two communities together football, at national level, does not offer very favourable prospects whilst, if anything, these prospects have reduced over recent years. The problem seems to be that issues which are seen as affecting nationality inevitably arise, for example in suggestion of adopting an all-Irish team, and these issues tend to be perceived as zero sum, where a gain to one community is interpreted as a loss for the other Success on the part of one or other national team may bring people together temporarily and rather tenuously but until and unless issues of national identity are resolved, such unity is always likely to dissolve.

The evidence does suggest, however, that this is not the case at a] levels of the game. In perhaps more mundane ways it does seem as if positive measures can be, and to some extent are, being taken toward improving relations between the different communities in Northern Ireland. The cross-community football schemes for young people, when allied to initiatives in schools such as the Education for Mutual Understanding programme, may have beneficial effects in breaking down psychological, if not physical barriers between people from different religious backgrounds in the longer-term. The simple fact that participation in the game at virtually all levels is mixed, unlike most other popular sports, should also not be overlooked. Opportunities do exist.

At higher levels substantial numbers of supporters are also brought into the equation. As has been seen they tend to be made up of the kin of people in sociological terms most likely to be found at the ‘cutting edge of the community conflict. In contrast to the more even division o Protestants and Catholics who play the game at senior level, the vas majority of supporters tend to be from the Protestant community, and most senior clubs are associated with that tradition. In this regard the potential for football to act as a kind of safety-valve for community tensions is reduced. Indeed the alienation expressed by Catholic supporters at various aspects of the senior game within Northern Ireland is likely to hell consolidate or exacerbate the divisions in society as a whole.

The case study seems to show that there are ways in which this sense of alienation can be addressed without necessarily impinging upon the sensitivities of people from the Protestant community. The restoration of the Cliftonville-Linfield fixture is one such example. A review of policing methods at matches involving clubs from the two communities may be another. Whilst expectations should not be raised that any such measures shall resolve conflict or heal basic divisions they can at least be seen to create a more even playing field upon which footballers and supporters from both communities inter-relate, in whatever way. That, in itself, may be seen as an important step forward.


As with association football, the sport of cycling has cut across both religious communities in Northern Ireland fairly widely in terms of participation. According to the estimates in the sample survey cycling, again like football, has many people from working-class backgrounds involved in the sport. It has also been afflicted, particularly over recent years, by a series of problems with parallels to those found in the soccer sphere, currently reflected in the fact that its 1,000 or so participants are divided between two separate governing bodies.

This study examines how and why the organisational division exists in the sport, the consequences with regard to community relations, and the likely shape of future developments. It is divided into three sections. The first outlines the background to the split and the nature of the two organisations currently controlling cycling in Northern Ireland. The second considers how the sport operates in the province as a whole. The third looks at the effects of the split at local level, focussing in particular on the Bangor/North Down area.


The history of cycling in Ireland is one punctuated by organisational schisms, shifting allegiances and interventions by external bodies which have serious repercussions for the balance of forces within the sport. As has been noted the divisions can be traced back to the way Irish cycling was originally developed on twin bases, one associated with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and one independent of its influence.

NACAA relatively short-lived and far from harmonious union in the 1920s between the two all-Irish bodies led to the breakaway, establishment and international acceptance of a cycling organisation based on the six counties of Northern Ireland which became part of the National Cycling Union in Britain. A further breakaway from the British body occurred after the end of the 2nd World War. Between 1948 and the mid 1970s there were 3 cycling bodies in Ireland; the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation (NICF) in the 6 counties, the Irish Cycling Federation (ICF) in the Republic of Ireland and the National Athletic Cycling Association (NACA), the body originally associated with the GAA and organised on a 32 county basis.

In contrast to the international football sphere, the NICF and ICF were able to co-operate to the extent of selecting a joint Irish squad for competitions such as the world championships. However their right to do so was contested bitterly by the NACA, which was not officially recognised by the world body and which disrupted a number of events during the 1950s and 1960s. As scenes like those at the Rome world championships in 1955 became a thing of the past moves were made to reconcile the rival organisations and in 1977 the Irish Cycling Tripartite Committee (ICTC) was set up with the very limited role of co-ordinating and sorting out differences between the three Irish cycling bodies.

Having brought the NACA back into the fold the ICTC operated largely harmoniously until changes in the rules of the world governing body (UCI) led to it refusing to accept separate membership fees from the individual organisations making up the ICTC. Proposals which followed for amalgamation of the three into a single Irish cycling organisation were accepted by the ICF and NACA but were fiercely opposed by elements within the NICF. The issue was put to the vote at the Annual General Meeting of the NICF in 1987 but ended in turmoil as a result of a procedural dispute over whether the required 2/3 majority had been obtained. Since the majority in favour of the proposal was a fraction short of that required the chairman of the meeting used a casting vote which opponents of the amalgamation considered illegitimate. Subsequent court action led to the vote being re-taken and narrowly failing to reach the majority needed. In the process considerable ill-feeling was engendered between the different camps, giving rise to a further split.

The majority of clubs within the NICF decided to break away from the organisation and ally to the fledgling all-Irish body, the Federation of Irish Cyclists (FIC). As a result a new regional organisation, the Ulster Cycling Federation (UCF) was set up on a 9 county basis in March 1988. Whilst the division in terms of the former membership of the NICF was around 75:25 towards the new body and about 70:30 in respect of clubs, some minorities were unhappy about their individual club’s decision and in certain areas, such as Ballymena, Newtownards and Bangor/North Down rival clubs were formed. The Sports Council for Northern Ireland withdrew funding from the NICF in favour of the UCF, which through the FIC was officially recognised by the world governing body.

Relations between the UCF and NTCF were initially very hostile, particularly between officials of the two bodies. A major source of grievance to the NICF was that their riders were not granted British licences allowing them to race in many events for a period after the split since the UCI considered that they should be part of the Irish organisation.

Efforts were made to mediate between the two bodies, promoted by the Sports Council but, ultimately, little progress was made. The major stumbling block appeared to be that whilst the world body considered Ireland to be the appropriate organisational basis for the sport the NICF believed that as British citizens they were entitled to be associated to the British Cycling Federation (BCF). In the early 1990s, following protracted discussions, NICF riders were given permission to race under BCF licences but the NICF was not allowed to take a full part in the British organisation, occupying a kind of ‘semi-detached’ status. UCF proposals for further discussions aimed at reconciling differences between the organisations were not taken up. Today, cycling in Northern Ireland remains split between the two bodies.

The NICF remains the smaller of the two cycling bodies but claims that contrary to the general trend, its membership has grown since the split and that there are currently over 500 people involved in the organisation. It points to the fact that over the 5 years since the division the number of clubs within its ranks has grown from 6 to 18.

In the sample survey the NICF estimated that its membership was almost exclusively male, predominantly in the 16-40 age range and evenly divided between people from the middle and working classes. On the question of religious background it was unable to provide an estimate but thought there was likely to be a Protestant predominance. However, the NICF stressed that, contrary to allegations made at the time of the split, it was a totally non-sectarian organisation which was open to all.

The UCF is the larger cycling organisation with a current membership of around 800, representing a loss of approximately 100 people since the breakaway from the NICF in 1988. It pointed out that this was a very small reduction in numbers compared to the other Irish regions. Total membership of the FIC had fallen from a peak of 4,200 to around 2,800. 16 clubs (of the 22 in the old NICF) had originally joined the UCF along with those in the Ulster region of the NACA and, despite one or two losses, there had been no major changes.

In the sample survey the UCF estimated its membership was again almost exclusively male and predominantly in the 16-40 age range, but, in contrast to the NICF, was heavily (80:20) weighted in favour of people from working-class backgrounds. On the question of religious background the UCF estimated there to be an even division between Protestants and Catholics although it was thought that there were more Catholics represented in the higher echelons of the organisation. However the UCF categorically rejected suggestions that it was in any way "representing nationalist interests"(34).

Cycling in Northern Ireland

Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge from background information on cycling within Northern Ireland, confirmed by the data arising from the sample survey, is that, in contrast to association football, the problems which have arisen in this sport can be located largely at elite level, particularly between officials of the two bodies. As a result the case-study focussed on this level and officials from the NICF and UCF were interviewed about the situation which existed in cycling both in terms of the province as a whole and in respect of particular localities. Bearing in mind that the individuals spoken to were officials the interviews were left more open-ended than those conducted with the sets of football supporters, in order to allow the issues of greatest concern to the different bodies to emerge more clearly.

In respect of cycling within Northern Ireland as a whole, both bodies had strong arguments to support their current organisational basis. The NICF pointed to its long-standing associations with the British governing body and said that it had been happy to play an active part within the ICTC as long as it did not threaten its relationship with Britain. Mention was made of the fact that divisions within the ICTC tended to leave the ICF isolated against the NICF and NACA rather than the NICF standing alone.

On the issue of the proposed amalgamation the NICF argued that the action taken was in breach of the constitution and rules of the ICTC which required the unanimous approval of all three bodies for any such proposals to be accepted. In this sense the NICF had been the only body acting legitimately and therefore it resented being subsequently treated by the world governing body and the Sports Council for Northern Ireland as a pariah and being labelled as a bigoted and sectarian organisation.

The basis of the views put forward by the UCF was that the minority within the old NICF who had acted to block the amalgamation proposal were motivated largely by political interests. This had been reinforced by their subsequent inflexibility in having recourse to the law over procedural matters and in their refusal to compromise or even respond to efforts at mediation. It pointed to the fact that the majority of sports are organised on an all-Irish basis and, even those largely played by Protestants within Northern Ireland, such as rugby union and hockey are able to operate fairly successfully on that basis.

The UCF emphasised that it had made efforts to reconcile the differences between them, offering to organise on a 6 county basis, being flexible about the granting of licences to NICF riders, and suggesting joint championships and meetings but the response from the NICF had been disappointing. It had been particularly disturbed by the involvement of local councils in the dispute, refusing to support races staged by the UCF and, in certain cases, accusing it of discrimination. This was cited as another example of the extent to which Northern Ireland’s political divisions had been brought into the sport.

As far as international competition is concerned NICF riders are eligible to compete for Britain and UCF riders for Ireland at world and Olympic level. However, for the Commonwealth games, a Northern Ireland squad is entered with riders from both orgamsa4ons taking part. Not surprisingly, since the split, this has given rise to some difficulties. For the 1990 games in Auckland, although both NICF and UCF competitors were selected, only officials from the NICF were represented on the Commonwealth games selection committee. For the 1994 games in Victoria, Canada, one coach with each organisation is involved in the selection process, reporting to a working committee under the supervision of the Sports Council for Northern Ireland.

Funding presents a further problem as 50% of travel costs to the games have to be met by the two cycling organisations. This has led to something of a difference as the UCF, likely to have the majority of cyclists in the squad, prefered to split the costs on a 50:50 basis whilst the NICF was only prepared to fund its own competitors. Whilst not a major source of grievance, the fact that such issues do arise reflects the difficulties in having two organisations controlling the sport within such a relatively small region. As with football rules governing eligibility for selection create further uncertainties, although on a lesser scale.

Attempting to assess the different viewpoints expressed by officials from the NICF and UCF, it should be stressed firstly that for the majority of riders the divisions within their sport do not significantly impinge on their activities, particularly since the rules governing the granting of licences to NICF competitors were relaxed. Nonetheless at elite level the divisions do run deep and they can impose restrictions throughout the sport, as in rival meetings being staged on the same days.

There can be little doubt that these divisions are enmeshed in those which exist in Northern Irish society as a whole and, in this instance, can be closely related to the differences manifested by the political representatives of the two communities. The apparent reluctance to compromise on the part of the NICF has echoes in the ‘Not an inch’ stance of elements within unionist politics. This is reflected in the nature of local councils which have most vigorously supported their case.

At the same time the actions of the world body in forcing the issue of amalgamation and refusing for some time to allow NICF riders to compete out with their own events smacks strongly of insensitivity, particularly bearing in mind the importance of the issue of nationality in this context. However well-meaning the UCF’s suggested compromises may have been the fact they involve some perceived dilution of the right of the NICF to maintain its British identity indicates at least a degree of naivety. The extent to which the positions of the two bodies have become bound up with conflicts of nationality is perhaps reflected in the comment of the Sports Council mediator that their dispute would only be resolved when the political crisis in Northern Ireland is settled (35).

Cycling at Local Level

The case-study also examined the effects of the split within cycling at local level, once again focussing on the views of officials from the two bodies. In addition, one or two informal interviews were conducted with participants and former participants in the sport.

At the time of the division there were 22 cycling clubs in Northern Ireland belonging to the NICF and 15 within 9 county Ulster which were affiliated to the NACA. 16 clubs broke away from the NICF and along with the NACA clubs joined the UCF, forming one of 6 regions within the internationally recognised FIC.

As has been noted the differences which arose between former NICF colleagues over the issue of amalgamation and the procedural disputes and court case which followed ran deep and grew increasingly bitter. Decisions by individual clubs as to whether they should join the break-away or remain within the NICF were not always accepted universally by members and in several localities rival clubs were set up.

One such example was in the Bangor and North Down area. This area, in stark contrast to North Belfast, is one relatively untouched by sectarian conflict. It is considered to be a highly desirable residential area, predominantly middle-class and generally mixed in respect of the religious backgrounds of people who live there. In political terms Bangor and North Down has a tradition of conservatism and unionism and is represented in Westminster by Popular Unionist MP, James Kilfedder. Until 1993 the Conservative Party was the largest group on the local council but subsequently the Official Unionist Party re-gained much of the support it had lost to the Northern Ireland Conservatives.

A cycling club was established in the area in 1977 by a number of people active within the sport who lived in Bangor and North Down. It grew rapidly and by 1982 had become the biggest club in Ireland, catering especially for younger people interested in the activity. Riders from the North Down club have been highly successful, a recent example being Alistair Irvine who won a bronze medal at the Auckland Commonwealth games in 1990. The club obtained lucrative sponsorship deals, the most prominent leading to it being re-named Toyota North Down. Several individuals from the club went on to hold official positions within the NICF.

As a members’ club, at the time the proposals for the amalgamation of Irish cycling were put before the AGM of the NICF, a vote was held to establish its position. This was reported to have been 22 votes to 4 against the proposed amalgamation. When the vote was taken at the AGM of the NICF the proposal was 2/3 of a vote short of the majority required. A subsequent motion was carried, empowering the chairman of the meeting to use his casting vote on the issue. The chairman, a member of the Bangor and North Down club, cast his vote in favour, giving rise to the controversy documented above which precipitated the NICF-UCF split.

At club level, relations between the officials who had been active in campaigning against the amalgamation, supported by the majority of members, and the individuals who were in favour of the proposal and considered the NICF vote to have been legitimately carried, became extremely hostile. It was reported that some members of the minority group proposed a vote of no confidence in the North Down club committee for their refusal to accept the original decision of the NICF and when the vote of no confidence failed were asked to resign. When the breakaway by the majority of clubs from the NICF got underway a new club, Veto Club Bangor, was set up in the North Down area by those members in favour of the amalgamation. It was affiliated to the UCF and, ultimately, the FIC.

The net result was bitterness between officials of the two cycling clubs which had consequences both in the personal and political realms. Individuals involved in the disputes reported receiving abuse and hate-mail of a sectarian nature. Riders were subject to similar abuse whilst competing in races.

Coverage of the division in cycling in the Bangor/North Down area spread from the sports to the news and comment pages of the local press, which helped push the issue onto the party political agenda. Local councillors took up the case of the NICF, particularly in respect of the refusal of the world body to allow its riders to race under British licences. In 1988-89 the North Down council refused to sanction a reception for visiting cyclists competing in an event organised in the area by the UCF.

Other councils went a great deal further. Ballymena council circulated other local authorities with a proposal that no support should be offered to clubs within the UCF due to the ‘discrimination’ clubs and riders belonging to the NICF were subjected to. It suggested contacting the Sports Council for Northern Ireland concerning its refusal to grant-aid the NICF and the world governing body for cycling over the issue of licences. Whilst other local authorities were far from receptive to this proposal, perhaps partially due to legal representations made on behalf of the UCF, it demonstrates how deeply and directly political conflict permeated the sport in the aftermath of the split.

Since this time and particularly since NICF riders were permitted to race under British licences, relations between the two organisations, at least at local level, have improved somewhat. Cyclists from clubs affiliated to one organisation readily compete in races organised by the other body and at the grass-roots personal relations are reported to be quite amicable. In the North Down area the established Toyota North Down club is by far the stronger and individuals from the UCF club are reported as being happy to recommend young people to join the rival organisation since it can offer special coaching and better facilities to them.

Between officials, however, substantial differences remain and whilst personal animosities may have faded somewhat, the issues which separate them have become tangled up in Northern Ireland’s political conflict and are unlikely to be resolved without a sea-change in the wider political and social environment. As one of the most apparently straightforward and least confrontational activities, what has happened to cycling in Northern Ireland suggests that political inputs into sport, particularly in a context of community division are most difficult to contain, and when mixed with issues relating to nationality create a cocktail of elements with potentially damaging consequences for all those involved in that activity.

Whilst in the case of association football, the most serious problems from a community relations perspective appear to exist at mass level, in cycling, by contrast, they seem to be found at the level of sporting elites. The case study suggests that as a result these problems are much more difficult to address without becoming bogged down in Northern Ireland’s zero-sum politics. This may reflect the increased socio-economic and political resources of these cycling elites compared to the individuals who stand on the soccer terracings. It may also be indicative of the related fact that whilst some community relations issues in football can, to some degree, be divorced from conflicts of nationality, the latter are inexorably bound up with the issues which have caused the sport of cycling within Northern Ireland so much difficulty.

Having said all this, in cycling, as in football, participants are, to a great degree, shielded from these problems. Nonetheless, the atmosphere created can have an effect, reflected in the comments of cyclists from the nationalist community that although NICF clubs are open to all and they were happy to compete and socialise with NICF riders they would not feel comfortable about joining such clubs due to the NICF’s perceived political leanings. When the politics of community division have become so deeply imbued in a sport, for whatever reasons, it may take more than limited community relations initiatives within the confines of that activity to break down these barriers.


The study of boxing is divided into four sections. The first sets out the background to the sport in Northern Ireland. Its social bases are explored in the second section and the third follows this up by examining the role of boxing in the province’s divided community context. Finally, some conclusions regarding the wider implications of individual boxing success stories are set out in section four.


Boxing has its origins in maritime and commercial centres such as London, Bristol and Dublin. A knowledge of and ability in bare knuckled pugilism was a staple element of the occupational subculture of rough and ready British and Irish sea-farers who helped to spread an interest in the sport throughout the British Isles and the developing world. More than commodities have been imported into Ireland through ports such as Dublin and Belfast. For generations the ways of life of other countries including their distinctive sporting preferences have been carried across the seas by sailors, merchants and various classes of immigrant workers.

Organised boxing in one form or another has been taking place in Belfast for at least 200 years. During the first quarter of the 19th century, at a time when British favourites such as Tom Crib and Jim Molineaux fought bare knuckle before large crowds in fields and boxing booths in and around London, Ulster people would gather at Chapel Fields and Points Fields on the outskirts of Belfast to wager on fighting animals and cheer on local pugilists. Since that time boxing has been integral to the city’s sporting heritage.

In addition to its sea-faring heritage, Belfast has long been a garrison town. There is a mistaken perception, in some circles, that the British army have only been in Northern Ireland since the current episode of political, violence began in 1969. A long history of civil unrest and civil war in Ulster has meant that the British ‘army has maintained a strong presence in the Province for more than three hundred years. It has also recruited and based several regiments in Northern Ireland such as the Irish Rangers, the Royal Irish Rifles and the Enniskilling Fusiliers.

Boxing has always been an important part of physical training and recreational life in the services and the army has produced more than its share of amateur boxing champions. Indeed, the British army helped to lay the foundations for organised amateur boxing in Belfast. Before the onset of the ‘troubles’ , Belfast based regiments would open their recreational facilities for community use as well as take part in a full range of local sporting competitions including boxing. Regimental boxing matches and contests between regimental teams and local boxing clubs were a regular feature of the city’s sporting calendar before the late 1960s.

Likewise, prior to partition in 1921 the Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) played a significant role in the development of the sport in Belfast. After partition this role was enthusiastically embraced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (R.U.C.) which, until the onset of the troubles in 1969, was a leading force in Ulster boxing, both within the ring and in the administration of the sport.

The Social Bases of Boxing

Social class is recognised as being one of the most important influences on sports preference and participation. A necessary precondition for boxing to take root and thrive is the existence of a sizable and largely impoverished working class. Alongside trade and commerce, in the second half of the 19th century, Belfast built a significant industrial infrastructure around textiles, ship building and engineering. The rapid and accelerating increase in the city’s population which occurred throughout the last century centred on a burgeoning working class.

The population of Belfast at the turn of the 18th century was 20,000 and it doubled approximately every 25 years during the 19th century reaching 80,000 by 1850 and almost 200,000 by the beginning of the 20th century, levelling off at roughly 300,000 in the 1950s. Wages among the workers in Northern Ireland are lower than other regions of the United Kingdom and rates of unemployment are usually significantly higher. The affluent worker is as rare as the snake in Northern Ireland and a combination of low rates of pay and high rates of unemployment has led to the emergence of a large lower working class population.

The relationship between the lower working classes and boxing is well established. For our purposes it is sufficient to note that the boxing subculture is sustained by a mixture of aggressive masculinity; the capacity of the sport to provide a positively sanctioned channel for this trait; and the belief that the sport can offer a form of sanctuary from urban poverty and related social problems.

In Northern Ireland to this general equation we have to add the impact of two decades of political conflict, terrorism and community division. Furthermore, the fact there is a higher proportion of impoverished working class Catholics than Protestants in Belfast, helps to explain why the city produces more Catholic than Protestant fighters.

The Catholic Church has also played some part in the growth and development of boxing in Belfast. Mainly through uniformed youth organisations such as the Scouts and the Boys Brigade, Protestant churches have shown a considerable commitment to youth sports but they have been more reluctant than their Catholic counter-parts to include boxing as an appropriate activity. Sustaining a belief that idle hands make work for the devil, parish priests have been instrumental in setting up a number of boxing clubs. This can be seen as an attempt to instill physical and spiritual discipline while at the same time turning boys and young men away from the ill-discipline and vice of the streets.

In some cases boxing clubs are housed within church premises and even where there is no direct association between church and ring it is quite common for boxing clubs in Catholic neighbourhoods, such as the Holy Family and the Holy Trinity, to take on the names of their respective parish churches. Boxing clubs in Protestant districts, on the other hand, are usually associated with works, factories or secular youth clubs and are often set up by local ex-boxers who combine an interest in their former sport with a concern for the welfare of youngsters in their local communities. To some extent the different attitude of the churches to the sport is a further factor which helps to explain why the majority of boxers in Northern Ireland are Catholic.

Even though participation in boxing is in general decline throughout Britain and Ireland the rate of that decline seems to be less pronounced in Belfast. Currently, there are more than thirty amateur boxing clubs in central and suburban Belfast which are registered with the Ulster Provincial Council and which box under the auspices of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (I.A.B.A.).

While the density of boxing clubs per capita may be greater in Belfast than in other cities, religious affiliation notwithstanding, the socio-economic context of boxing here is the same as can be found in towns such as London, Dublin, Liverpool and, to some degree, New York and Detroit. That context is the ghetto. The trend towards the compartmentalisation of poverty which is so noticeable in modern British cities is exaggerated in Belfast, where 20 years of community violence has accelerated Belfast’s inner-city ghettoisation into an orange and green patchwork of neighbourhood stockades.

Following the contours of the city’s sectarian geography, almost all of Belfast’s boxing clubs are located either in long standing inner city neighborhoods such as Shankill, Short Strand, Divis, Docks and the Markets or within dislocated, low income housing estates such as Andersonstown, Twinbrook, Ballymurphy, Turf Lodge, Rathcoole and Monkstown. All of these neighbourhoods can be categorised either as Catholic/nationalist or Protestant/loyalist.

Boxing and Community Divisions

Thus, at one level, boxing in Belfast follows a pattern of community division, but in other important ways the sport has been able to resist sectarian stereotyping. Of the 30 or so clubs in Belfast more than 2/3 are in nationalist neighbourhoods, catering for fighters who are predominantly Catholic. The same dynamic operates in favour of Protestants for clubs in unionist districts. There is nothing surprising or sinister about this observation. In the case of boxing, it is the city’s demography which is sectarian rather than elements within the sport itself. It is only to be expected that when youngsters first take up the sport they elect or are directed to train at the club nearest to home. However, teams of boxers and their supporters travel to and from each others clubs and arenas free from the fear of molestation to be warmly received and well treated, even though these venues are likely to be in the hearts of the most vehemently nationalist or loyalist neighbourhoods in the whole of Northern Ireland.

For instance in the early 1970s, during the height of the troubles, while many other community based sports such as basketball and youth football went into decline because people were not prepared to travel outside of their immediate areas, amateur boxing managed to continue. Fighters from the nationalist Falls district regularly went to box at a venue on the Shankill Road even though it was within a social club run by Protestant paramilitaries.

Moreover, once boxers get older and become totally dedicated to their sport they will change clubs if they believe they will get better coaching elsewhere, even if this means relocating to a gym in a district which is dominated by the other religious tradition. In the case of the Holy Family Boxing Club, in the Catholic New Lodge estate, the clientele are actually mixed, with young boxers from areas with radically different political reputations training and fighting side by side each night of the week, supervised by trainers and coaches from both sides of the sectarian divide.

At one level, the presence of young working class Protestants in the heart of a Catholic community such as the New Lodge is very surprising. After all, while the troubles pervade all quarters of Northern Ireland’s social terrain, the most bitter and violent manifestations of the Province’s political crisis generally occur within and between working class communities and it is here that sectarian polarisation is most intense. Moreover, it is working class young men who are most likely to be at the giving and receiving ends of sectarian violence. This is the same social context which provides the setting and raw material for boxing, arguably the most violent sport in the modern world.

Take a violent sport such as boxing and locate it in the heart of a violent society and one would not be surprised to discover evidence of the sport exacerbating existing community divisions and worsening conflict.

However, evidence suggests that while boxing is an intrinsic part of Belfast’s inner-city culture, to some extent the boxing fraternity manages to remain apart from those forces which promote cross community conflict. In short, in a context where most other sports are deeply involved in the politics of community division, boxing appears to remain true to those corinthian principles which enshrine the separation of sport and politics. How can this be so?

Boxing in Belfast is sustained by old fashioned working class traditions and values. It is a sport for ‘hard men’, but in a pre-1950s rather than post 1960s vintage. The ‘hard men’ of the pre-1950s were those who worked in the shipyards, mills and factories, inhabiting a proud, physically tough and exclusively male occupational culture which cast along shadow into popular recreation outside of the workplace. From an early age boys learned physically to stand up for themselves. They also learned an ethical code which valued disciplined toughness but admonished gratuitous violence. Disputes in the school yard or street fights featured punches not kicks or head-butts and never weapons. It was from this environment that the pre-1950s ‘hard men’ emerged. Some, including the legendary Rinty Monaghan, took their talents into the ring while others such as Buck Alec and Silver McKee were content to fight for informal neighbourhood titles in bars and alleys throughout the city.

Many of the factories have long since closed and, like so many other degenerating industrial landscapes, Belfast’s working class neighbourhoods have lost much of their traditional cultural cement. The city’s post-industrial working class culture remains tough, but endemic unemployment, sectarian polarisation and enduring political violence ensure that toughness is edged with suspicion, cynicism and ruthlessness. The status of today’s ‘hard men’ is measured in terms of their capacity to engage in boundless violence and there is no place for their appetites and attitudes in the boxing fraternity. In this regard boxing in Belfast is a refreshing reminder of a bygone era when, for the majority of people, life in the city was hard, but fair and relatively safe and when local heroes earned respect in terms of a creed rooted in the morality of natural justice rather than the jungle.

The central core of boxing is physical aggression, but its existence as a sport is dependent on the strict delineation and control of the boundary between aggression and violence. These are the conventions of truce which characterise the boxing subculture world wide and demand of its members and camp followers a high degree of self and collective control. Ascetic qualities such as self denial, personal discipline and deferred gratification are held in high regard in the boxing world. In addition, while the ultimate focus of the fighters’ consciousness is the defeat of a given opponent, respect for that opponent is also one of the boxers enduring principles.

The boundless violence which seems to be endemic within the modem inner-city, whether it be random, gangland or politically motivated has no place within the subculture of the boxer and this is as true in Belfast as it is in Chicago, Detroit and Mexico City. Boxing thrives in Belfast not because of the city’s violent heart, but despite that violence. The gatekeepers of the Holy Family and other boxing clubs in Belfast are well aware of this and they carefully police their boundaries to ensure that the malevolence, wildness and disrespect often associated with street youth culture are not allowed to contaminate the atmosphere of their sport.

In addition, because politics and sectarianism are such close relatives of violence in Belfast, great efforts are made to ensure that politics and sectarianism are left at the gymnasium door. Without these conventions of truce and their careful policing, boxing in north Belfast would surely degenerate into barbarism. Thus, while there is a surface logic to the fact that boxing, by reputation one of the world’s most violent sports, thrives in the heart of a famously violent city, under closer scrutiny this logic breaks down.

The capacity of boxing to attract people from both communities is undoubtedly helped by the fact that the sport is not automatically associated with one or other cultural tradition. Even though the English may have been responsible for the initial development of boxing in its modern form, in no way could the sport be described as anglophile. Boxing has been able to grow as a genuinely universal sport which is not intrinsically bound up with a particular nationalist or post-colonial tradition.

The same cannot be said of sports such as cricket, rugby union or hockey which, although played in many different countries, are still redolent of their distinctively English heritage and as such do not attract Catholics in significant numbers in Northern Ireland. Similarly, Gaelic games are so clearly bound up with the symbols and traditions of all Ireland that very few Protestants are inclined to become involved. In contrast, boxing is perceived as a neutral sport. Participation in boxing is not taken as an indication of a person’s religious or political persuasion and as such Catholics and Protestants can mix in the name of the sport without fear of sectarian stigma.

Teams are not built in boxing clubs in the same sense that they are when the context is association football, rugby union or Gaelic games. The further a boxer advances in his career, the more individualistic he becomes and the further away he gets from identification with groups of other fighters. Much of a serious fighter’s training is conducted alone, outside of the gym. Even though he may train regularly at his club in the company of fellow members, the nature of that training is quite solitary and there is little time set aside for social bonding.

Very little intimate social interaction takes place among senior fighters within clubs such as the Holy Family and even less occurs outside of the boundaries of the sport. It is only on the few occasions when a club travels away from home to box as a team that any significant socialisation takes place and even then the themes for communication are invariably selected from the world of boxing and other non-aligned sports. The lack of an intimate social dimension to boxing means that there is no serious exchange of the views and values which have a bearing upon social and political division.

Thus, while boxing does have a measure of cross-community support, it is a mistake to overstate the contribution that the sport can make to community relations in Belfast. If boxing has any impact on social division in Belfast then it is at the level of the individual and only of relevance to the serious boxer. Along with a decision to become a serious boxer comes an implicit rejection of many of The degrading aspects of life in Belfast including terrorism and the subculture which sustains boundless violence.

Also, the more successful a serious boxer is in his career the more opportunity he will have to travel and experience longer term relationships with people of different religious, racial and national backgrounds. However, the individual fighter’s rejection of the sectarianism and boundless violence which may be characteristic of certain areas of his home town has little impact on the underpinning structure of cross-community conflict there. The most likely result of a serious fighter from Belfast having his horizons broadened through involvement in boxing is that he will move house.

Boxing in Belfast is a political to the extent that people from rival communities are prepared to suspend their beliefs while within the boundaries of their chosen sport. However, the extent to which this influences social values, political beliefs and notions of national identity outside the ring is limited. As Barry McGuigan and Wayne McCullough have discovered, the moment a sport in Northern Ireland reveals its potential to have a positive impact on community relations beyond its own boundaries, no matter how slight, is the same moment that the sport becomes a target for political exploitation by forces which thrive on community division.

Wayne McCullough won a silver medal for Ireland at the Barcelona Olympics having, as the squad’s youngest competitor, carried the Irish national flag in the opening ceremony of the Seoul Olympics in 1988. McCullough is a Protestant from Belfast’s Shankill Road. Northern Irish amateur fighters must box under the governance of the I.A.B.A. (Irish Amateur Boxing Association) and in international tournaments, with the exception of the Commonwealth Games, must represent Ireland. This is not necessarily appreciated outside of boxing circles in Northern Ireland, especially in hard-line loyalist areas such as the Shankill Road where representing the Irish Republic is considered by some to be nothing short of treason.

The glare of publicity which accompanied McCullough carrying the Irish Tricolour in Seoul reflected badly on his family back home who were intimidated by hard-line loyalist elements. More recently the politics of national division were more formally revealed by the actions of the unionist dominated Belfast City Council. After taking (what was for them) the enlightened step of hosting a civic reception at City Hall for McCullough on his return from Barcelona, they refused to invite fellow team member and Olympic champion, Michael Carruth, from county Cork, even though McCullough had been guest of honour at the reception held for Carruth in Dublin a few days earlier. The council argued that they could not honour Carruth because he was a corporal in the army of a state which still claimed constitutional jurisdiction over Northern Ireland (articles 2 and 3 of the constitution of the Republic of Ireland). With this kind of treatment fresh in his mind, McCullough has spurned opportunities to join professional boxing stables in both England and Ireland electing instead to box professionally in the United States.

Circumstances in the career of Barry McGuigan, arguably the best boxer to emerge from the island of Ireland in recent memory, may also have influenced McCullough’ s decision to fight professionally in the United States. McGuigan was born and brought up in Clones, County Monaghan, in that part of Ulster which is in the Irish Republic. As an amateur, like all Ulstermen, McGuigan fought within the embrace of the I.A.B.A.. However, when he turned professional he was advised by his then mentor/manager, B. J. Eastwood to box in pursuit of British rather than Irish titles - presumably because the former offered a more lucrative return than the latter and a better chance of world recognition.

In an attempt to appease Irish nationalists while at the same time not offending unionists, McGuigan entered the ring under the flag of the United Nations and the Londonderry Air (Danny Boy), rather than the British or Irish anthems was played. However, many Irish nationalists outside of the boxing fraternity never forgave McGuigan for contesting British titles, becoming, as they saw it, a ‘turn coat’. When the boxer paraded through the streets of Belfast with his world title slogans such as ‘Barry the Brit - sold his soul for English gold’ were daubed around nationalist areas of the city. Since retiring from the ring McGuigan has elected to set up home in southern England, ostensibly to be closer to his business interests. However, it is possible that in deciding whether to live in England or Ulster, death threats which McGuigan received from nationalists helped to tip the balance in favour of Kent over Armagh.


The study of hockey is divided into three sections. The first looks at the background and development of the sport in Northern Ireland. The second focusses respectively on the problems which have arisen in the mens and ladies games. The third examines the implications from a community relations perspective and offers some pointers for future research.


As has been noted, the roots of Irish hockey can be traced back to the origins of the Gaelic sport of hurley. However, as an organised and codified sport hockey, in common with such activities as cricket and rugby union, developed from the English public school system and was taken up in Ireland largely in the heartlands of British influence, being played primarily by the middle to upper classes. After partition, again like other sports with British middle-class associations, hockey developed within an all-Irish structure, competition being organised on the basis of the four Provinces. However, reflecting the game’s demographic background, the Province least touched by British influence, Connaught did not readily take to hockey and still does not participate at senior inter-provincial level.

Within Northern Ireland the perceived associations of the sport combined with a divided educational system have meant that hockey has become the preserve of the Protestant community. In keeping with its social class base, the game’s strongholds have been in Protestant grammar schools which have provided many of the teams in Ulster’s senior and junior leagues.

Estimates in the sample survey suggest that around 75% of all hockey players are from middle-class backgrounds and that about 90% are Protestant. Perhaps due to the absence of a major rival sport, such as rugby union or association football, for women from such backgrounds, the numbers actively involved in the ladies’ game are estimated to be more than twice those for men’s hockey.

At least partially as a consequence of it being played primarily by one community, hockey has not suffered from the sectarian problems found in association football. However it has encountered difficulties with parallels in the conflicts observed at elite level in cycling. Whilst there has been little controversy within either game of hockey about the sport’s organisational basis, issues linked to national allegiance have proved divisive, particularly in respect of the selection of players for international duty. Long standing modi vivendi which have worked especially well in the realm of flags and anthems have been threatened by changes which, as in cycling, have been largely precipitated from outside Ireland. Although common to both games, the repercussions there have been in men’s and ladies’ hockey have taken subtly different nuances and merit separate treatment.

Men’s Hockey

Reflecting the emphasis in the sport on compromise, perhaps heightened by the middle-class sensitivities involved, hockey players from Northern Ireland have traditionally been eligible to play for either or both Irish and British national teams. As with the situation which prevailed in international football until the 1950s, the fact Ireland did not take part at the highest level of world competition, in this case the Olympic games, meant that such a compromise was tenable since Britain and Ireland could not clash at that level. Also, the number of players affected was likely to be small.

Nonetheless there was disquiet, particularly from outside, about players being able to represent two national teams simultaneously. Rule changes within the International Olympic Committee meant that for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics a qualifying tournament was to be held, thus opening the door to Irish participation. Perhaps again reflecting the national allegiances and middle-class sensibilities of those concerned, officials from the Ulster branch of the Irish Hockey Union are reported to have opposed Ireland’s entry to the qualifying process bearing in mind all the implications it held for the sport in respect of changes to flags, anthems and selection policies, but were out voted.

As a result the best players from within Northern Ireland who are selected for international duty now have to choose between competing for Ireland or Great Britain. Whilst the numbers likely to be affected are very limited the choice does present a dilemma given the likely social and political backgrounds of players at the highest level and the juxtaposition of the best routes to personal advancement within the game, with all the NACAOs wider implications contained therein.

In particular it appears liable to generate discord at elite level within the Irish Hockey Union and between players and officials inside Northern Ireland. Given the traditions of compromise exhibited in hockey, this is unlikely to be manifested in the kind of divisions and conflict which emerged in cycling, but nonetheless, by emphasising issues relating to national identity there is a risk of increasing politicisation. The differences in views expressed in the sample survey suggests that it may not take too much pressure to bring such issues to the forefront of the sport.

Ladies’ Hockey

In the ladies game players at the highest level from Northern Ireland have long had to choose between representing the Irish or British national sides. Reflecting the conflicting aspirations involved in such a choice and the wider implications involved, the issue has proved to be highly contentious.

In 1980 the Irish Ladies’ Hockey Union (ILHU) imposed a 6 year ban on two senior players within the Ulster province, Jenny Redpath and Violet McBride, who opted to play for Great Britain rather than Ireland, when selected for both. A similar decisions by two Ulster competitors, Joanne Menown and Jackie Burns in 1991 gave rise to further controversy, particularly since Ireland were to play against Great Britain in the Olympic qualifying tournament. The fact that the British squad went on to win a bronze medal at the Barcelona games highlights the attractions of such a choice, quite apart from questions of nationality. When the likely community background of such players is added to the equation it seems reasonable to conclude that discord would result from any attempts to remove the British option.

What also emerges from consideration of developments in the ladies’ game is that gender appears to make little substantial difference to the complexities which afflict sport within Northern Ireland when issues relating to national identity gain a hold. Indeed, in hockey, the problems which have arisen seem to have caused greater upset to the ladies’ game, although this may be explained to a great extent by circumstances, in particular the fact that it has only been in the 1990s that the men’s Irish hockey team has competed at Olympic level. Nonetheless, in this very limited example, there is little evidence of the intrusion of community divisions into sport being an exclusively male phenomenon.


This study of hockey within Northern Ireland merely brushes the surface of the issues impinging on community relations which are to be found therein. It should be emphasised that for the most part both mens and ladies’ hockey are free of political conflict and efforts are being made to broaden the cross-community base although the residual influence of Northern Ireland’s educational system makes it likely that any changes in this regard shall be on a fairly small-scale. The problems hockey has encountered at elite level reflect less on the sport itself and more on the extent to which community divisions permeate all aspects of social life in Northern Ireland and prove especially tortuous when issues of national allegiance become entwined.

The experience of hockey, to some extent reinforced by developments in cycling, suggests that the conflicts which occur at elite level are in many respects the most difficult to resolve or contain. This suggests, where hockey is concerned, that future research exploring the relationship between social background, sporting achievement and the perceived strength of national allegiances may be worthwhile, perhaps comparing the responses of participants at grass-roots level to those of the top players and high ranking officials. In addition a more detailed and sophisticated analysis of whether gender makes any difference in respect of this relationship may be of value.

Hockey has not been blighted by the same scale of conflict and division as that found in cycling, although the most contentious issues within the sport are of a similar nature and are concentrated again at elite level. The reasons that hockey has not suffered so intensely thus far seem to lie in its social origins, history of compromise and, perhaps most pertinently, the fact it is played almost exclusively by one community. If its community base should broaden, bearing in mind the problems which have already arisen, hockey’s officials may be advised to look carefully at what has happened in cycling and be sensitive to changes that may take shape in the sphere of conflicting national allegiances.


1. M Brodie, Northern Ireland Soccer Year-book 1989-90, Howard Publications, 1989, p4.

2. J Sugden and A Bairner, 'Northern Ireland - Sport in a Divided Society' in L Allison (ed), The Politics of Sport, MUP, 1986, p116.

3. M Brodie, 'The time when Ireland had one national team' , in N Ireland v Republic of Ireland official match programme, 21 November 1979, p9.

4. M Brodie, Op. cit., p9.

5. M Brodie, Op. cit., p9.

6. Republic of Ireland v N Ireland official match programme, 20 September 1978, p5.

7. M Brodie, Op. cit., p9, and H McDowell, 'An Ulster pair who won caps in the Free State', N Ireland v Republic of Ire land official match programme, 21 November 1979, p27.

8. Irish Times, (Weekend Supplement), 13 November 1993, p1.

9. J. Sugden & A Bairner, Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland, Leicester University Press, 1993, p78.

10. Belfast Telegraph, 15 November 1993, p26.

11. Ireland’s Saturday Night, 23 October 1993, pp l4/l5.

12. N P McGivern, 'The Examination of Patterns of Association Football Support as a Way of Determining National Identity in Northern Ireland', unpublished BA (Hons) dissertation, University of Ulster at Jordanstown, 1991, pp 59-61.

13. Daily Mirror (NI edition), 2 November 1993, p1.

14. (Scottish) Sunday Mail, 31 October 1993, p59.

15. One Team in Ulster, Linfield FC supporters unofficial fanzine, no 1, January 1989, p5.

16. R Allen, 'Football’s Bigots', in Fortnight, no 266, November 1988, p29.

17. Belfast Telegraph, 30 November 1993, p11.

18. Op. cit., 18 November 1993, p1.

19. Ibid, 18 November 1993, p1.

20. Ibid. 13 October 1993, p2.

21. J Sugden & A Bairner, 'Northern Ireland - Sport in a Divided Society', in L Allison (ed), The Politics of Sport, MUP, 1986. p116.

22. J Kennedy. Belfast Celtic, Univ Press, 1989, p97.

23. M Ticher, ‘Football - Healer, Threat or Victim’, in When Saturday Comes, No 7, September 1987, p14.

24. J Sugden and A Bairner, Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland, Leicester Univ Press, 1993, p78.

25. Belfast Telegraph, 1 December 1988, p40.

26. J Sugden & A Bairner, 'Northern Ireland - Sport in a Divided Society', in L Allison (ed), The Politics of Sport, MUP, 1986, p113.

27. N Ternahan, 'The Gorman Conquest', in When Saturday Comes, no 78, August 1993, ppl0/11.

28. Ireland’s Saturday Night, 22 February 1992, p2.

29. Belfast Telegraph, 15 February 1990, p1.

30. Sunday Life, 18 February 1990, p56.

31. I Ridley, Season in the Cold, Kingswood, 1992, pp 168/169.

32. Ireland’s Saturday Night, 22 February 1992, p2.

33. N P McGivern, Op. cit., pp159-161.

34. J Sugden & A Bairner, Sport, Sectarianism and Society in a Divided Ireland, Leicester Univ Press, 1993, p69.

35. J Sugden & A Bairner, Op. cit., pp69/7O.



Additional Note

Abbreviations used in the diagrams:

ANG = Angling
BAD = Badminton
BAS = Basketball
BOW = Bowls
BOX = Boxing
CYC1 = Cycling (Ulster Cycling Federation)
CYC2 = Cycling (Northern Ireland Cycling Federation)
EQU = Equestrian
FOO = Football
GAA = Gaelic Athletics Association
LGO = Ladies Golf
LHO = Ladies Hockey
MHO = Mens Hockey
MCYC = Motorcycling
RUN = Running

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