The power of sport to unify was demonstrated at Stormont on Monday as every MLA there signed a letter to back three Northern Irish gymnasts who have been banned from the Commonwealth Games.
Although the Assembly couldn’t agree to appoint a new Speaker, all 81 members present signed a letter to the president of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), calling on him to reverse the decision to ban the gymnasts because they had previously competed for Ireland.
The secretary of state has written separately to the FIG president, calling for him to “urgently reconsider this decision”.
Among the three banned athletes is Rhys McClenaghan, who has been told he may have to renounce the Irish nationality on his gymnastics licence if he wants to defend his Commonwealth title.
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said: “I am delighted that all 81 members present, from the TUV to Sinn Fein, signed the letter. Sporting people should not suffer disadvantage because of how their governing bodies are structured.
“It is very common for individuals to represent Northern Ireland, Ireland or Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“The FIG’s decision is a reversal of custom and practice and also a clear breach of the Belfast Agreement. Our open letter urges the decision to be reversed with immediate effect.”
In his letter to the FIG, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis noted that two of athletes banned had represented Northern Ireland at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“This sets a clear precedent for their participation in the 2022 Games,” he said.
He added that “the Federation’s decision not to permit these gymnasts to represent Northern Ireland, as a part of the United Kingdom, appears to frustrate their birthright as people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as British or Irish — or both — as they may choose; and accordingly to hold both British and Irish citizenship.
He added: “It is the UK Government’s firm position that given that these athletes were born in Northern Ireland, they should, consistent with their rights as set out in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, be free to compete both for Ireland and the UK. Forcing these athletes to ‘change their FIG license nationality registration’, as proposed in your press statement on May 27, would be incongruent with these rights.”
The campaign to reverse the decisions against Rhys and teammates Eamon Montgomery and Ewan McAteer has received some high-profile sporting support, including from Olympic gold medallist Lady Mary Peters and Portaferry middle-distance Commonwealth hopeful Ciara Mageean.
World Championships finalist Mageean said that if the same rules were applied to athletics, she wouldn’t be able to compete at this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
She said she was “flabbergasted” by the decision.
“I sincerely hope that this ruling will be lifted, because it shows a real ignorance to the situation in Northern Ireland and how life is,” she told BBC Sport.
Lady Mary criticised the decision taken by “faceless men in grey suits” and said: “It’s got to be reversed... The very fact that Rhys won a gold medal at the last Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland... How can they say he’s not eligible? It’s a crazy situation.”
A spokesperson for Commonwealth Games NI told the Belfast Telegraph: “Our board meets on Wednesday evening and in the meantime we remain in regular contact with the athletes and their coaches. We continue to remain optimistic that the FIG and the CGF [Commonwealth Games Federation] will come to an agreement that allows Northern Ireland gymnasts to compete at Birmingham 2022.”