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

Publication contents



The Demographics of Sport

Before any assessment of the relationship between sport and the community in Northern Ireland is made certain basic information about the nature and extent of participation in sport is required. To this end the sixteen sports involved in the community relations sample survey were asked to answer questions about the numbers involved in their particular activity; the main sources of recruitment to their sport; and the social background of participants expressed in terms of age, gender, social class and religious affiliation. The following data is based on the responses received from the sports who took part in the survey. 2 sports (cricket and snooker) decided not to participate in this exercise. 1 sport (equestrianism) chose not to answer questions it considered inappropriate. 1 sport (cycling) is split between two governing bodies and since the answers received were based on the individual organisations concerned they are treated separately (as 2 sports) for these purposes.

2.1: Scale of Involvement

Sports were asked to estimate the numbers involved in their sports in terms of administrators; players; coaches; and any other category or categories of association.

2.1.1 - Administration

13 sports provided estimates of the numbers involved in administration. These are illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1

The wide differences in the scale and nature of the sports studied is reflected in the fact that numbers of administrators range between 2 and 3,240. Some of the differences may be explained by variations in the way individuals interpreted the question, particularly in respect of whether club officials should be regarded as administrators. Nonetheless, these estimates do help place a range of Northern Irelandís most popular sports in a comparative perspective, highlighting, for example, that football and Gaelic sports are some way ahead of other sports in terms of numbers involved.

2.1.2 - Participation

All 15 sports provided information on the numbers who participate in their particular activity. Figure 2 shows the distribution between sports.

Figure 2

Again numbers vary quite markedly between sports. The total number of participants estimated to be involved in this sample of sports approaches 150,000 and this is a sizeable cross-section of Northern Irelandís population.


In all cases except equestrian sport estimates were provided of participants affiliated in some way to the sportís governing body. The figure for equestrian sport refers to the number of people who ride or drive horses and ponies for recreation. Thus, in comparative terms, this estimate is artificially high. The figure for Gaelic sports incorporates participants in a range of different activities, chiefly camogie, handball, hurling and Gaelic football. Once again football and the amalgam of Gaelic sports are by some way the most popular in respect of organised participation. Of course, as the estimate for equestrian sport illustrates, many more people take part in these activities than join official clubs and/or become affiliated to each sportís governing body.

2.1.3 - Coaching

Estimates were obtained from 11 sports of the number of coaches engaged within their activity. Figure 3 is based on this information.

Figure 3

Once again, wide varieties in scale may be seen. Football reported having a number of professional full-time and part-time coaches but found it impossible to quantify the vast number of unpaid coaches involved in the sport. Bearing in mind the number of boysí clubs, it was thought that the figure would be in excess of 500. In this category, Gaelic sport and football seem to be confirmed as the sporting activities most widely engaged in.

2.1.4 - Other Categories

5 sports reported having other kinds of involvement in their activity in addition to players, coaches and administrators. These were specified as the following; referees in basketball; referees, judges, timekeepers and extras in boxing; commisars in cycling [NICF]; and umpires/judges in both ladies and mens hockey. Estimates of the numbers involved are shown in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4

2.1.5 - Total Involvement

The total number of people estimated to be involved in each sport is shown in Figure 5 below.

Figure 5

Football and rugby union were unable to quantify numbers involved in certain categories and, therefore, their totals are likely to underestimate the scale of involvement. Bearing this in mind the total number of people involved in these 15 sports in some form of officially recognised capacity is likely to be between 150,000 and 200,000. When spectators are taken into account this figure is likely to rise even higher.

More than half of the people active in the group of sports included in the survey are involved in either football or the range of activities organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association. Perhaps more surprisingly the next four most popular sports in terms of numbers involved are made up of the following; equestrian sports; bowls; ladiesí hockey; and ladiesí golf. The numbers underline the significance of sport as a component of cultural life for the communities in Northern Ireland.

Of course it is possible that the governing body estimates overstate the true level of formal participation. A review of a number of recent surveys into adult sports participation in Northern Ireland indicates that the governing bodies figures reported here are higher than those obtained through sample surveys of the whole population. According to this source, swimming, a sport not included in our sample survey, is the most popular participant sport. It is highly likely that the bulk of these swimmers are of the recreative and non-competitive variety and are unlikely to participate within the formal embrace of a governing body. (33) Moreover, it is also likely that many participants are active in a number of sports and as such may be represented in more than one governing body total. Thus, the figures reported here should be treated with caution.

2.2: Sources of Recruitment

Sports included in the sample survey were asked to evaluate the influence of various sources in bringing people into their particular activity. A 1-5 scale was used with values ranging from No influence (1) to Highly influential (5). Respondents were asked to rate four general sources; grammar schools; secondary schools; church-based youth organisations; and community-based youth organisations; and to cite any other sources relevant to their sport.

2.2.1 - Grammar Schools

Figure 6 shows the degree of influence each respondent sport considered grammar schools to have on recruitment.

Figure 6

These estimates tend to support the view of such sports as hockey and rugby union as being patronised by those who have come through the (largely Protestant) grammar school system. This is further supported by evidence of the number of teams associated with particular grammar schools. However, the other sport to consider grammar schools to be highly influential in recruitment, basketball, is one which has been associated more with Catholic schools.

2.2.2 - Secondary Schools

Figure 7 shows the level of influence secondary schools were thought to have on recruitment.

Figure 7

These figures, with the exception of the estimate for rugby union, again tend to support the commonly held view that secondary schools are more important as a source of recruitment in sports with a working-class base such as football and less important in middle-class sports like hockey. The figure for rugby union should perhaps be treated with caution, bearing in mind the data on class background shown in Figure 11. The difference in estimates between Northern Irelandís two cycling organisations may reflect their respective social class bases.

2.2.3 - Church-based Youth Organisations

Figure 8 shows estimates of how influential church-based youth organisations are as sources of recruitment to each sport.

Figure 8

Expectations about the importance of church-related activities to the recruitment process for certain sports such as badminton and, to a lesser extent, bowls, have been borne out. However other sports which might have been anticipated to have a significant input from church-based organisations, particularly more popular activities such as boxing, football and Gaelic sport have reported otherwise. In respect of boxing a note was added that (particularly Roman Catholic) church-based organisations had been an important source of recruitment in the past but that their influence is now much less substantial.

2.2.4 - Community-based Youth Organisations

Figure 9 shows the level of influence each sport considered community-based youth organisations such as boysí clubs to have on recruitment.

Figure 9

Overall, such organisations were not thought to have a significant influence on the process of recruitment. The estimate for badminton may confirm its relative popularity as an indoor pastime for youth groups, etc. However, figures for football and boxing may suggest that such clubs are not as widespread and/or as influential as once was thought to be the case.

2.2.5 - Other Sources

Sports were asked to name any other sources by which people came to take up their activity and, where possible, to evaluate the influence of such sources on the same 1-5 scale. Figure 10 shows the estimates of how influential other named sources were in terms of recruitment.

Figure 10

Sources named and evaluated included the following; primary schools (badminton, hockey and rugby union); television (basketball, cycling); individual coaching schemes (boxing, cycling, rugby union); and being introduced to a modified version of the sport (indoor bowls, mini-hockey, mini-rugby). Other sources which were named but proved difficult to evaluate were the following; influence of family/friends (angling, boxing, cycling, equestrian, ladies golf, motor cycling); and local success and/or increased media interest (basketball, boxing, cycling, GAA, rugby union).

2.2.6 - Conclusions

Approximate mean scores for each of the four standard sources of recruitment which sports were asked to evaluate are shown below in Table 1.

Table 1

Grammar Schools:


Secondary Schools:


Church-based Youth:


Community-based Youth:


Beyond these, the frequency with which the influence of family and friends and local factors were mentioned may be significant.

Levels of influence ranged from sports such as equestrianism and motor cycling where all proferred sources had no influence to basketball where all were considered to have a major influence. The low estimates for the former activities may be explained by the technical nature of the sports concerned which makes it difficult or impossible for them to be promoted in a school or youth organisation context.

The relative importance of schools as sources of recruitment may be seen as supporting the view that there is a close association between the educational system in Northern Ireland and the nature of social activities such as sport. However, to gain a fuller perspective, information regarding the social composition of people who take part in each sport was obtained.

2.3: Social Composition

Sports included in the survey were asked to estimate the make-up of people who took part in their particular activity in terms of social class, gender, age-group and religion. In each of these categories, with the exception of age-group, estimates were to be based on a simple dichotomy in order to standardise as far as possible the bases on which responses were made and minimise confusion. However, a number of sports found it difficult or impossible to provide estimates to fit the format of the questions. It was as if this was the first time the respondents had ever conceived of their sports in social and cultural terms.

2.3.1 - Social Class

Here sports were asked to estimate the balance between participants of working-class (manual) and middle-class (non-manual) backgrounds. 13 sports provided estimates of this information, shown in Figure 11.

Figure 11

6 sports reported a working-class bias; 4 reported a middle-class bias; and 3 reported an even division. Both sports which could or would not provide an estimate (ladies golf and equestrian sports) appear likely to have a middle-class predominance, suggesting a fairly balanced sample of sports in this respect.

When the numbers participating in each of the 13 sports, as detailed in Figure 2, are taken into account, the total social class balance is weighted approximately 60:40 in favour of the working-class. Again, bearing in mind that the two sports which did not respond are likely to be mainly middle-class in composition, a fairly even division seems to have been obtained. Since, amongst the population at large, there are likely to be more people (in terms of this simple division) in the working-class, this might suggest that individuals from middle-class backgrounds are more likely to become involved in organised sporting activities.

2.3.2 - Gender

14 sports provided estimates of the gender balance amongst participants in their activity. Figure 12 shows this information.

Figure 12

11 sports are predominantly or exclusively male in composition; 2 sports are exclusively female; and 1 sport reported an even division. It is highly likely that the sport which did not respond; equestrian sport; may be an overwhelmingly female sport. The 2 sports reporting to be exclusively female were specific governing bodies for women in activities also played by men.

When the numbers participating in each of the sports, as given in Figure 2, are taken into account the overall male:female proportion approximates around 82:18. It is hard to escape the conclusion that sport is still largely a manís world, at least as far as organised competition is concerned.

2.3.3 - Age-Group

Sports were asked to estimate the age profiles of people who participate in their activity. To this end five age-groups were suggested; under 16; 16-25; 25-40; 40-60; and 60 plus. Respondents were asked to estimate the proportion of participants who came into each category. A number of sports found this exercise to be difficult and/or complex. 11 were able to make full estimates while another 3 could only provide partial answers. Figure 13 shows the estimates of the 11 sports who provided complete answers.

Figure 13

Football estimated that all players would be found within the first three age-groups but due to the vast numbers involved was unable to differentiate between them. Ladies golf placed the age-groups in the following order as far as numbers were concerned; 1st: 40-60; 2nd: 25-40; 3rd: 60+; 4th:U16; 5th: 16-25. Bowls placed age-groups in the following order; 1st: 40-60; 2nd=: 60+ and 25-40; 4th: 16-25; 5th: U16.

When the information from the sports who provided complete estimates is examined it appears that organised sporting activities are largely the preserve of people under 40. Within that category there is a fairly even division between the three age-groups. Mean proportions based on the 11 sports cited in Figure 14 approximate around the following: 38% for the 25-40 group; 31% for the under 16ís; and 26% for the 16-25 age-group. The predominance of under 40ís would be reduced somewhat by the inclusion of figures for ladies golf (and, presumably, mens golf also) and bowls. However, if numbers participating in each sport were to be taken into account, the inclusion of football would significantly re-inforce the under 40 bias. The conclusion, perhaps predictably, is that sport on an organised level is played largely by younger people.

2.3.4 - Religion

Sports were asked to estimate the religious balance amongst people taking part in their activity. This was to be done on the basis of a simple Protestant:Catholic divide. A number of respondents were unable and/or unwilling to answer this question. Some said that it was impossible to provide an estimate as their activity was open to all and they did not ask about and were not interested in peopleís religious backgrounds. Others could not estimate proportions but expressed an opinion as regards the likely balance in their sport. 9 sports provided a more or less complete answer. Figure 14 shows the estimates of proportions of Protestant and Catholic participants within these sports.

Figure 14

The figure for football is based upon players in the Irish League. There was thought to be a slight Protestant bias at lower levels, although this was considered impossible to quantify. The estimate for rugby union is made on a 9 county basis and therefore, in the context of Northern Ireland, there is likely to be a greater Protestant predominance.

Four sports (Angling, Badminton, Cycling [NICF], Ladiesí Golf) could not provide estimates but thought there was a higher proportion of Protestants than Catholics taking part in their particular activities. It was suggested (from an external source) that the Protestant predominance in the membership of the NICF cycling organisation may be as substantial as 90:10. Motor cycling could not provide an estimate but thought the sport was evenly mixed.

When the numbers participating in each sport, set out in Figure 2, are taken into account, the overall balance across the 9 sports who provided estimates approximates to a 68:32 Catholic predominance. However, when the estimate for Gaelic sports (with 52,000 reported participants) is removed the balance changes significantly, approximating to a 60:40 Protestant advantage. Once more, for reasons outlined above, these figures should be treated with caution.

Table 2 shows the number of sports in which each religious group was considered to be the largest. Estimates from all 14 sports are accounted for here.

Table 2







What emerges in this social sphere is a much more complex picture than those found in respect of social class, gender or age-group.

Gaelic sports are the only virtually exclusive activities included in this survey in terms of religion. Since around one-third of all the sportsmen and sportswomen considered here play these sports their influence on any general perspectives obtained is substantial.

When all 15 sports, including those organised by the GAA, are considered as a whole, Catholics appear to be over-represented in organised sporting activities. However, when Gaelic sports are excluded and the likely under-estimation of Protestant predominance in two other major sports; football and rugby union is taken into account, the perspective changes radically into one in which Protestants seem likely to be over-represented. It also appears to be the case that the sports which have a Protestant predominance are more reluctant to report this than those which consider themselves to have more Catholic players. For these reasons simple conclusions as regards the Protestant-Catholic mix in. sport in. Northern Ireland are untenable.

2.3.5 - Conclusions

The information provided by sports which were included in the sample survey seems to suggest the following conclusions. People who take part in organised sport appear more likely to be middle-class, much more likely to be male, and, to a greater or lesser degree dependent on the particular activity engaged in, somewhat more likely to be from a younger age-group than would be the case in a typical cross-section of the population. This may be explained to an extent by the nature of the sports selected for the survey, by the lack of response of particular sports and by the limits of the very basic methodology used. However these findings may also be considered to support the view that the people who are under-represented in sport are those likely to be disadvantaged in terms of resources such as money, time, social confidence and status.

The position in respect of religion is more difficult to discern. It is perhaps understandable that sports were somewhat less forthcoming in providing estimates of their religious mix than in respect of the other socially relevant characteristics. In particular sports which appear and/or thought themselves to have a greater number of Protestants than Catholics taking part in their activity were reluctant to estimate the extent to which this is the case. This may reflect misapprehension about their sport being seen as prejudiced and a number of respondents put great emphasis on pointing out that they were non-sectarian and open to all.

However, the result is to make any general assessment of the religious balance in sport in Northern Ireland, based on the information provided, a very difficult enterprise. Perhaps what does emerge from this basic information is that Catholics do participate substantially in organised sport in Northern Ireland, but to the extent that this is done through activities organised by the GAA, the contact that arises between the two communities is likely to be negligible. In other sports there is Catholic representation to a greater or lesser degree. However the information obtained is not sufficient to allow firm conclusions to be reached as to the religious balance within these sports other than to say that the Protestant predominance found is at least equivalent to that which pertains in the population of Northern Ireland at large. For whatever reasons few sports, in terms of the number of players, actually bring Protestants and Catholics together in any meaningful sense, although Figure 15 supports the view that cycling and football may, to some extent and under certain circumstances, prove exceptions to this rule.


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