Positive stories emanating from the world of sport have become more and more of a rarity. At the very least, they have been sidelined and cast in the shadow of top-level sports’ increasingly amoral character.
As commercial interests befoul the higher ranks, the good work undertaken at grassroots and community level goes largely unnoticed. Sport, as a consequence, gets a bad reputation. But despite some divisive tendencies, its capacity to unite is unparalleled. Nowhere on this island is that more evident than across the border in the North.
Historically, Gaelic games have been a sporting personification of nationalist views, with rugby and cricket on the other hand consolidating unionist identity. Soccer, though drawing its fan base and players widely from both traditions, was described by alan Bairner in a 2001 essay called ‘Sport, Politics and Society in Northern Ireland’ as the “terrain on which sectarian contestation could regularly be played out.”
A conference held in Armagh at the beginning of the month drew attention to sport’s somewhat understated role in the ongoing Peace Process through projects undertaken by organisations on various sides of the political and religious spectrum.
The Sport and Reconciliation Conference, jointly hosted by the Irish Football Association, the IRFU’s Ulster branch and Ulster GAA, was attended by both the taoiseach and tánaiste as well as the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. It showcased the work done by the three sporting organisations in fostering better relations between and within divided communities.
Michael Boyd, Director of Football development at the Irish Football Association (IFA), called the event a celebration of the partnership between the three disciplines. “We all share a passion for development and making a positive impact in the community. We’ve been working together for quite a while now and delivering joint workshops for referees, volunteers and clubs, in areas like good relations, anti-sectarianism, community outreach and fundraising.”
The IFA is just one of the Northern Irish organisations at the forefront of a community relations movement founded upon sporting initiatives. Through a wide range of development programmes under the ‘Football for all’ banner, the IFA uses “football as a hook to address issues around respect and identity and tackle issues around racism and sectarianism.”
Northern Irish football has come a long way, Boyd says, from the days when Neil Lennon received death threats from fans for kitting out for the national team as a Catholic.
“Northern Ireland is a deeply divided place and there are major issues,” Boyd explains. “But I think football can hold its head up high along with the other sports. When you think about the fact that most of the kids here are segregated in their education, it’s things like sport and music and drama that actually make a big difference to young people. We can bring new role models, give them new opportunities and create new spaces for them to develop what the new Northern Ireland looks like.”
One of the IFA’s recent projects is a Youth Forum, where 14 to 16-year- olds ‘have a meaningful voice’ in the IFA’s community relations development plans for the future.
Football, as the battleground for sectarianism in Northern Irish sport, has particularly felt the weight of conflict on its shoulders. On the elite level, a prevailing concern has been that promising Catholic players born and reared in Northern Ireland, such as recent defector James McClean, will feel more aligned to the Republic as a result of outstanding issues of identity and sectarianism. The IFA, naturally, want to turn that around, but Boyd explains that it will not be an easy task.
“If I’d been born a mile down the road from where I was born, I probably would have grown up a Republic of Ireland fan and if I had been a top footballer and had the choice, you would want to play for the team you support.
“I think there’s a big challenge to us as an association; how do we create a Northern Irish football identity which people can feel a part of and create a sense of belonging around it? It has to come from a lot of different angles. We have to provide a fun, safe and inclusive atmosphere at all levels, whether its grassroots or elite.
“We need to make sure the quality of our coaching is the best it can be, so when people are involved with us they want to stay involved, and we also have to look at the new challenges that new Northern Ireland throws down to other sports, not just football; we all need to look at how we present ourselves, like what sort of flags, symbols and anthems we use.”
The Peace Process itself still has a long way to go, but the vital signs for Northern Irish sport are promising. Much of this is down to the work undertaken by the different disciplines in encouraging younger generations to be more open to working together. Through collaboration, the distinct sports are leading by example.
“By coming together and sharing where things are, the good and the bad, i think sport is in a very healthy place,” Boyd says. “There’s a group called the Sport for Change Group, and it’s [the IFA], rugby, GAA and the PeacePlayers. One of the things I enjoy about being part of that group is that we do talk about the hard issues and we do talk about how we can combine.
“I’m not saying we can solve any of those issues any time soon, but what we are passionate about and what we are actually delivering on is that we’re actually making a difference to kids’ lives. That’s something to be proud of. In a way, sport and the community sector in Ireland is doing a lot of heavy lifting and showing the way for the politicians.
“I think sports leading that [have] probably been underplayed. From a football point of view, we maybe haven’t communicated it as well as we possibly could have in the past, but that’s something we’re looking to change in the future.”
PeacePlayers International, one of the members of the Sport for Change group, is a charity based on developing cross-community relationships through sport, principally basketball. The organisation is part of a parent group with similar projects in South Africa, the Middle East and Cyprus.
In Northern Ireland, their initiatives include a primary school twinning project, which pairs segregated schools whose pupils may not have any other means of socialising with children from different religions.
“Essentially, we use basketball as largely a neutral sport in Northern Ireland to bring children together, the very simple premise being that children that play together can learn to live together,” Gareth Harper, managing director of PeacePlayers Northern Ireland, explains.
“We bring kids together from Catholic and Protestant communities and put them on integrated teams, so they have new teammates from the other community. We’ve also complemented that with a community relations curriculum, which examines issues like similarities and differences and sectarianism and prejudices and stereotypes through a sporting lens.
“We have a facilitative conversation, which goes alongside and leverages the relationships that the kids have developed through playing the sport together.”
PeacePlayers NI works with children from the age of around seven up to young people aged 18 and older. Those who have progressed beyond their primary school initiatives are often re-engaged in coaching programmes, and some who have come through the earlier stages have even come on as paid employees at the charity.
Recently, the primary school twinning project had a major coup in bringing children from two very different schools across one of Belfast’s most significant peace walls. The Cupar Way peace wall was erected in 1969 to minimise violence between the predominantly Catholic Falls Road and mainly Protestant Shankill Road. “It’s a huge development for the kids there, but also in terms of seeing progress
in the program,” Harper says.
Bringing children across such long-standing lines hasn’t always been an option. Previously, concerned parents resisted efforts to integrate, and most of PeacePlayers’ events were usually held in neutral venues. Thankfully, according to Harper, this year that was not the case.
“Now parents are happy for their kids to participate. This year none of the parents said no to the schools participating and the big manifestation of that is when kids start feeling comfortable in each other’s spaces… the parents now also let their kids come to play with kids from the other community in the out- of-school setting with us after school.”
Sport is uniquely suited to being an instrument of the Peace Process. Primarily because it promotes teamwork, which consequently teaches togetherness, and PeacePlayers’ activities largely hinge on this concept.
“If a team is to be successful no matter what it is, a basketball team, a football team or a soccer team, the kids just have to get along with each other,” explains Harper.
“They have to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they have to see each other as people and recognise the skills and particular talents that each bring to the table. Our key lesson in this is that you select your friends on the same basis that you select your teammates.
“Sport on so many levels is just a great tool… When you introduce a competitive element and kids have to work together to be successful it really makes a difference for them. It helps to strengthen the relationship and form those bonds, particularly if you can develop a sustained team because the relationships are extended beyond a short-term intervention.
“If you invest in a team, you get to know those people on your team really well, and those bonds last forever. What we’re trying to do is create opportunities within sport where those relationships across the traditional divide here can be made.”
Landmark events like the schoolchildren crossing the peace wall are promising signs that the work of PeacePlayers, the IFA, and similarly orientated charities and organisations, is taking root.
“There are huge indicators in terms of progress,” Harper says. “Can we attribute it all to what PeacePlayers does? Probably not, but can we claim some credit for things like that being able to happen now? Absolutely.”
The sport-for-development movement, awakening in all corners of the globe, has probably yet to be fully recognised for the progressive work it has been doing. In Northern Ireland, Boyd and Harper agree that it’s the responsibility of the organisations involved to self-promote more.
“Sport’s potential has yet to be fully realised,” says Harper. “I think sport certainly has a bigger contribution to make, and it’s up to us who work in the sporting field and who are involved in community relations through sport to actually shout more about it and to provide more evidence of its impact.
“It isn’t attracting the investment I think it deserves, but recently in the ‘Together Building a United Community’ strategy, sport was identified as a key mechanism. In fact, our work along with the IFA, the Ulster Council of GAA and Ulster Rugby through our Game of three Halves initiative is recognised in the strategy.”
The Game of Three Halves is one of PeacePlayers’ most innovative resources. Combining lessons in Gaelic games, rugby and football supplemented by a ‘fourth half’ comprised of interactive discussions with PeacePlayers facilitators, the activities give children access to games that, largely because of their background, they might not otherwise have been exposed to.
Initiatives such as this can help to break down traditional perceptions of individual sports, as well as showing children just how much they have in common with members of different religions.
One of the Troubles’ indirect society-damaging effects was that sport in Northern Ireland became inextricably entangled with politics. Through the work of the country’s foremost sporting bodies and organisations like PeacePlayers, sport is becoming a primary agent for change and reconciliation.
As the sports come together in the name of post-conflict development, we can only hope that the communities follow their lead.