Barry McGuigan, our champion ... and now man of peace
A quarter of a century ago people from across Northern Ireland gathered to watch Barry McGuigan win the World Featherweight boxing title.
Now the Ulster sporting hero is to be honoured for his contribution to peace in the province with a unique award.
The popular boxer became a beacon of hope, fighting under the UN peace flag and encouraging unity during the darkest days of the Troubles.
He was nominated by Belfast-based charity Springboard Opportunities for the United Nations Inspiration Award for Peace, as part of its Peace Day campaign.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, the boxing legend said he was delighted when he was told he would receive the accolade.
“When I was asked if I was happy to receive it, I said I was thrilled — I’m just honoured,” he said. “Boxing traditionally was received very well and accepted on both sides.
“I don’t want to sound obnoxious, but I like to think I brought it another step. I was able to bring people who were casually interested in boxing together.”
Springboard spokeswoman Paula Quinn explained why they nominated the former boxer, who will receive the award to mark the UN International Day of Peace.
“We want to look at the past but also to the future and we thought that Barry is everything that the award is about, somebody who can build bridges, somebody who chose a different path, a path of peace and he hasn’t forgotten where he has come from.
“He wore the dove of peace on his shorts and had the peace flag when he walked to the ring, so we couldn’t have a better recipient of the award.”
The ex-boxing champ described the period when he fought during the 1970s and 80s as a “scary time” in Northern Ireland’s history.
“What I was sick of, everywhere I went the kerbstone was painted one colour or the other, slogans and murals on the wall,” he said.
“I just thought I don’t want to add to that. I wanted to bring people together, and most importantly not feel threatened when they came to watch me box.
“That was why the United Nations Flag of Peace was ideal. People may have thought it was cliched, or commercial, it wasn’t.
“It happened to be, for me, a neutral way of bringing people together and it wasn’t going to offend anybody.
“And that’s why my dad, who was a phenomenal singer, sang Danny Boy at the fights, there were no anthems.”
Mr McGuigan who fought many bouts in both the Ulster Hall — where he won his first professional fight — and the King’s Hall, said he is still touched by people talking about attending his fights today.
“I get people to this day — I won my title 25 years ago — saying how wonderful a time they had during that dark period in our history when they came to watch me fight.
“It was a pretty horrible place, from a political point of view. But in amongst all that people were great, but it was a scary time.”
He said he was “proud” to see people from both sections of the community enjoy boxing.
“There were Barry McGuigan supporters’ clubs in the Shankill and Falls Road. There were some hardened individuals but they were unified by my boxing and that made me enormously proud.”
Mr McGuigan was speaking ahead of what he describes as a “new chapter” in his career as a boxing promoter.
Tonight, his protege Carl Frampton will fight in the Ulster Hall in what Mr McGuigan has described as the “new Belfast”.
Boxer from across the border who united a bitterly divided province
Sports commentator Jackie Fullerton:
“The five or six years in the early 80s when Barry was fighting his way towards a shot at the world title he did inspire people in the troubled province from both sides of the community.
“Boxing as a sport does that. But here was a pleasant young man from Clones who seemed to be the real deal as far as reaching the top level went and he had endearing qualities which he has today.
“I think in 1985 when he won the title, that was one of the special moments in the province’s history and I think because of the political background it had a unifying effect. This award couldn’t have happened to a nicer man and he is fully deserving of it.”
Television presenter Eamonn Holmes:
“There have been very few things that have united us as a country and as a people. I think sport has been far and away the best thing to do that.
And no one personifies that more than Barry McGuigan who fought under a flag of peace.
He came from the Republic of Ireland, he fought most of his fights in the north of Ireland, so no better man to receive this award.
Sports Minister Nelson McCausland:
“Although not born in Northern Ireland, Barry has become one of our favourite adopted sons.
“Barry has been one of Northern Ireland's most successful sportsmen on the world stage.
“He is widely respected across the community and has been a great ambassador for sport, and indeed for Northern Ireland.”
SDLP MLA Alban Maginness:
“Barry was one of those people who captured the public imagination. They saw him as courageous and skillful. Of course he is from across the border but that didn’t seem to matter at all — he was ‘one of their own’ — irrespective of religion and politics.
“People were proud of him and there was a sense of transcending the divisions here and giving — during dark times — people a bit of hope. That was his contribution.”
Olympian Dame Mary Peters:
“I sat with Dennis Taylor in 1985 when he won his title fight and there were thousands of fans there from Northern Ireland and no one asked about backgrounds. He helped to unify people through sport and is still heavily involved in sport today.”