Belfast Telegraph

Pitch battles with peace as the only goal

Unique camps where sport brings together children kept apart by sectarian divisions

By Lesley-Anne McKeown and Gerard Walton

They come from some of Northern Ireland’s most divided communities.

Separated by peace walls that are miles long and sectarianism which is decades deep.

But, over the next three weeks the Belfast Interface Games will be helping to break down those barriers and bring children together through their mutual love of sport.

The cross-community sports camps, which will run alongside the London Olympics, are focussed on three of the country’s most popular sports — rugby, football and Gaelic football — giving children from all backgrounds an opportunity to try something, and meet someone, new.

And yesterday at the training camp in north Belfast, the first to open, everybody was having fun.

There were smiles all round as Seaview, the Shore Road home of Crusaders football team, basked in sunshine while boys and girls from flashpoint areas such as Ardoyne, Ballysillan, Glenbryn and New Lodge played together happily.

The scenes of GAA Ulster Council coaches leading Gaelic football practice as Union and Ulster flags fluttered in the wind was in stark contrast to the violence that marred north Belfast just a few days ago.

Clearly teamwork, co-operation and co-ordination were the order of the day.

Coach Amy Murphy (16) said: “This is about promoting diversity through sport.

“When the children started you could see the odd one here and there not wanting to participate just because they had never tried the sport before. But, when they did, they loved it.

“And, you have Catholic kids and Protestant kids who are the best of friends because they are on the same team and not a bad word is ever said.”

Last week, hundreds of loyalists and republicans in north Belfast clashed after a contentious Orange Order parade sparked serious violence at Ardoyne. Three cars were hijacked and burnt out, shots were fired at police and dozens of petrol bombs were thrown during the rioting.

It is hoped that the games initiative, organised by the Belfast Interface Project, which represents 45 community organisations from nationalist and unionist areas and the charity, Peace Players International, will help prevent similar scenes in the future.

Gareth Harper, Peace Players managing director, said the games aimed for a 50/50 balance in the opposing communities to “explore diversity”.

He said: “The games are important for our young people, as they can learn to experience children from other traditions.

“They can view one another as a good team-mate and a good friend. We will have an integrated team from each area.

“Some of the children have been involved in Peace Players before, others have been involved with primary school twinning programmes but others have not had any contact with people from another community. This offers them the opportunity to meet new people and to try a new sport for the first time.”

The project is also backed by Ulster Rugby, the GAA and the Irish Football Association.

Training camps are also being set up in east and west Belfast and will culminate in a flagship event on August 10 when up to 180 children across Belfast are expected to take part in “a game of three halves” — a mixture of soccer, rugby and Gaelic football.

Factfile

West Belfast

When: Tuesday, July 24- Thursday, July 26.

St John’s GAC, Whiterock Road, Belfast.

East Belfast

When: Tuesday July 31- Thursday, August 2.

Malone Rugby Club, Cregagh Road, Belfast.

Flagship Event

Friday August, 10, 6pm-9pm

Seaview, Crusaders FC, Shore Road, Belfast.

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