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Majority in Northern Ireland want all-Ireland football team, survey suggests

By Rebecca Black

A majority of people in Northern Ireland would support an all-Ireland football team, new research has found.

More than half of the population (54%) would favour an all- island team, similar to the Irish Rugby team.

In terms of religious background, the majority in favour came from the Catholic community, with 69% supporting such a change compared to 39% of Protestants.

However former Irish Football Association (IFA) president Jim Boyce said two teams in Ireland allowed more players the opportunity to play for a national side.

Rugby was viewed by respondents as the most inclusive of the three main ball games in Northern Ireland, and GAA the least inclusive.

It also found that more than half (52%) do no physical activity or sport at all.

This study, Social Exclusion and Sport in Northern Ireland, was carried out by the Ulster University.

It found:

  • 42% believe national anthems should remain part of sport (36% believe they should be removed);
  • 51% believe that segregated schools are a major cause of segregation in sport;
  • 52% do no sport or physical activity at all;
  • 57% believe there is nothing wrong with different sports or teams being for Protestants or Catholics;
  • 84% believe sports in Northern Ireland are more open and inclusive than 10 years ago;
  • 90% believe that sport is a good way to break down barriers between Protestants and Catholics.

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The report also concluded that Catholics are "quite positively disposed towards Northern Ireland international soccer", and that 71% of Catholics along with 65% of Protestants feel the IFA was taking active steps to welcome all traditions.

Around two-thirds of Catholic respondents said they would like to see more Catholics supporting the NI international team, while only a slightly higher proportion of Protestants (60%) than Catholics (56%) said they would be willing to attend Windsor Park if offered tickets.

GAA is seen as overwhelmingly the preserve of the Catholic community, with only 1% of Protestant respondents saying they had watched "a lot of Gaelic football in the last year", compared with 31% of Catholics.

Only 39% of Protestants said they would attend a match in Casement Park if offered tickets compared to 78% of Catholics.

Ulster Rugby's home ground was regarded by respondents as the most inclusive of the three stadium sports; with 69% of Catholics saying they would attend if offered tickets, and 66% of Protestants.

In 1973, the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland teams came together for just one match in a united team experiment.

The "Shamrock Rovers XI" whose players included current Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill, played a one-off match against Brazil at Lansdowne Road - now the Aviva Stadium.

Belfast football legend George Best was a fan of the idea of an all-Ireland football team, his widow Alex revealed earlier this year.

But Mr Boyce said: "I have always said the fact that there are two teams in Ireland, a Republic of Ireland team and a Northern Ireland team, means that more players, both male and female, have the opportunity to represent their countries at international level. Personally I think that is the way that things should stay."

Ulster University's Professor Owen Hargie said the study is the first of its kind.

"For the first time ever Northern Ireland now has a benchmark for both government and local sporting organisations to chart the evolution of local attitudes to the future of sport," he said.

"This is the beginning of a much wider debate and we look forward to seeing our recommendations shape the future generation of sport."

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