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Calls for joint celebration to mark success of Northern Ireland's Olympians

By Lindsay Fergus

Northern Ireland’s Olympians have secured their highest ever medals tally from any Games — but the joy has been soured for some by the failure to provide a joint public celebration of their achievements.

Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin will host a private function next month to honour the two boxers and three rowers at Stormont, but it will be behind closed doors. Belfast City Council and Coleraine Borough Council have also organised separate events.

However, the failure to provide a joint public celebration has been criticised after the massive outpouring of support for Northern Ireland’s 21 Olympic athletes, who competed for both Team GB and Team Ireland.

Former Irish rugby international Trevor Ringland said: “It would be a nice idea to publicly celebrate all our young people who competed in the Olympics.”

Mr Ringland, a noted campaigner against sectarianism and a former Ulster Unionist politician, added: “We all felt tremendous pride from their performances — they were representing us and it would be great if the public could be given the chance to show their appreciation to these great ambassadors.”

It has been left to two local councils to publicly mark our medal winners’ success.

Belfast City Council organised an open-top bus ride through the centre of the city today, with crowds turning out to welcome home Olympic boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan. On Wednesday afternoon Coleraine Borough Council is inviting the public to The Diamond at the Town Hall to see Alan Campbell and the Chambers brothers Richard and Peter with their medals.

Belfast boxers Barnes and Conlan, rowers Campbell and the Chambers bring home a total of five medals — two more than Northern Ireland’s previous biggest haul at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.

North Antrim MLA Jim Allister is also questioning the Sports Minister’s decision to exclude the public from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s celebrations.

“I certainly do not see why the event should be behind closed doors,” he said.

The chairwoman of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee, Michelle McIlveen, said it is important that Northern Ireland's Olympians are publicly recognised.

“Everyone will want to see the achievements of our medal winners recognised.

“The Sports Minister has announced a reception but I believe we should also investigate the possibility for an event where the public can show their appreciation to the local stars,” she said.

Northern Ireland’s most famous Olympian, Dame Mary Peters, still fondly recalls her public homecoming parade 40 years ago after her success in the pentathlon when thousands of well-wishers lined the streets of Belfast.

“I remember it very well. I had been brought down Royal Avenue in an open-top lorry. It was at the height of the Troubles and people were throwing confetti out of the windows.”

The Sports Minister has defended her decision to host a private reception.

Minister Ni Chuilin said: “What we plan to do in September is to host a reception for all the Olympians in Parliament Buildings to pay tribute to the athletes. There are going to be quite a lot of athletes there with their families. It’s not open to the public.”

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