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Sport failing to bridge Ulster divide

Few sports in Northern Ireland bring Roman Catholics and Protestants together in any meaningful sense, according to a forthcoming study by the University of Ulster's Centre for the Study of Conflict. Yet senior sports administrators largely oppose taking community relations initiatives, say Dr John Sugden and Scott Harvie, following a survey of 16 sports.

"Examining results across the different levels of competition, it does seem clear that contact between Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren in sport is severely limited. Where teams are concerned, the vast majority of sports consider there to be little or no cross-community contact," they say.

Part of the problem is that many sports reflect the wider split in Northern Ireland politics. Gaelic games are overwhelmingly Catholic, whereas cricket, rugby and hockey are predominantly Protestant. Cycling, which is enjoyed by both sides, has different representative bodies resulting from bitter splits over allegiance to an all-Irish or British structure.

Sport has long been affected by Ireland's political divisions, the academics note. The president of the Irish Rugby Football Union was shot dead on the day of the Easter Rising in 1916 because of his association with Crown forces. Four years later, 13 people died when Black and Tans fired into the crowd at a Gaelic football match. Soccer has a long history of spectator violence and others face a "political quagmire" for eligibility for international representation and related issues of flags and emblems.

The study shows that sport does little to heal those old sectarian divisions and those running it show little interest in taking positive steps to do so.

Most of the sports reported that community division did not have an impact on recruitment to their activity. A similar number also claimed a considerable amount of religious mixing, but the academics believe these responses reflect reluctance to acknowledge the problem, perhaps for fear of being labelled sectarian.

Only three of the 14 sports which responded had been involved in a community relations scheme, and only one of these - football coaching camps for young people - was an initiative by the sport itself. There were no formal efforts to increase cross-community contact among adults.

Some of the claims to be reducing prejudice must be treated cautiously, says the report. But it adds: "What is perhaps more significant is the propensity for sports to distance themselves from community relations responsibilities. In many respects this reflects fears that by becoming involved in such projects they risk being contaminated, or at least being seen in some way as contaminated, by problems of a sectarian nature."

Nor had the sports organisations much interest in becoming involved in overt cross-community work. None of them had this as an aim in their constitutions and none was willing to have it. Football alone mentioned community relations in its coaching programmes; again none of the others was willing to mention it.

"This suggests that any efforts to force sports to embrace community relations would be met with, at best, ambivalence, and at worst, open hostility. One sport reported having attended community relations seminars but having decided that [further action] was inappropriate.

"At present, community relations themes appear to hold negative associations for a number of sports, related to fears that since their activity may be played largely by one community they may be identified as . . . sectarian or bigoted.

". . . The gains that community relations initiatives may bring to individual sports, perhaps through increased standards of performance and financial support, seem to be heavily outweighed by the potential costs in the minds of officials."

The report concludes: "If there are to be successful community relations initiatives in these sports,. . . a great deal of work is going to have to be done to change preconceptions of what this means for the organisations concerned and to allay fears on the part of individuals associated with such bodies."

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