Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

How partition left Northern Ireland as sport's poor relation

Sinn Fein Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin acknowledged last week that "a number of key issues need to be addressed"

After last week's report into alleged sectarianism in Irish amateur boxing circles, sport in Northern Ireland has questions to answer.

What began as an inquiry into the treatment of a small boxing club in Belfast's Sandy Row must now be widened to other sporting organisations.

The authors of the report concluded: "The Belfast Agreement has enshrined an individual's birthright... to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish, or British, or both, as they so may choose... the [report] group does not believe that this right is currently appropriately recognised for many sportsmen and women across many disciplines."

In other words, as is the case with amateur boxing, some sports appear to operate a discriminatory policy, which offers a citizen of Northern Ireland only one option – to represent Ireland.

The alternative is to take up his, or her, bed, go and live on the other side of the Irish Sea, affiliate to an English, Welsh or Scottish club and be considered for Great Britain. As the authors of the Sandy Row report observed, this is not in keeping with the spirit of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which affords equal cultural status to British and Irish traditions.

As a result, Sport Northern Ireland now needs to examine the legal implications of the current arrangements, with millions of pounds of public funds given to individual sporting organisations.

It is also a challenge to the Sinn Fein Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, who acknowledged last week that "a number of key issues need to be addressed".

Many sporting organisations predate the partition of the island. The foundations of golf, rugby, cricket, hockey, tennis and boxing were built before the turn of the 20th century, when sports clubs flourished in the industrial revolution.

To this day, sport in Northern Ireland remains organised largely on an all-Ireland basis, in spite of all the political and constitutional upheaval of the past century.

For example, sports clubs in Northern Ireland must pay annual affiliation dues to all-Ireland bodies, as do individual members, as part of their annual subscriptions, or entry fees into local tournaments. The headquarters of many of these bodies are not in Northern Ireland, but in and around Dublin. It falls that the principal training facilities and coaches are also there.

The issue is fraught with complexity. Those who control sport here support the status quo. In doing so, there is a recognition of the danger that any debate might provoke cross-border splits, as has long been the case with the separate soccer bodies, north and south.

Understandably, no one wishes to cause rancour and division. Any examination of the constitutional dilemma in sport requires ultra-sensitive handling.

That said, Sport NI must ensure that elite sports stars from here are not disadvantaged in comparison to the Republic, or Britain. Research should centre on the extent to which the annual revenue of sporting bodies is shared, north and south. Account should be taken of the views of Northern Ireland's most talented sportsmen and women as to where they would prefer to train and be coached.

Is it not time that British, as well as Irish, sporting organisations were encouraged to take an interest in Northern Ireland to enable the most talented to have more choice and support? Could more British and Irish sports co-operate better in the interests of Northern Ireland's unique position?

At the heart of this debate is the fact that sport has become increasingly professional and those who aspire to reach international standard need substantial financial help to fund rigorous training and coaching on a full-time basis. How is the funding split in these sports between north and south? Are the Ulster branches of all-Ireland sporting organisations too complacent?

If Andy Murray had been born in Belfast, rather than across the sea in Dunblane in Ayrshire, he would have been ineligible to play for Britain in the Davis Cup and would have received no funding from the governing British body, the Lawn Tennis Association, which is in receipt of considerable profits from Wimbledon, but has no jurisdiction here.

The question for local sport in the 21st century is whether it is still fit for purpose in the new Northern Ireland, which is a partnership of British and Irish interests. Those who reach the highest level of sporting achievement should not have to worry about such matters, but the evidence from the Sandy Row report suggests otherwise.

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