Nelson McCausland: Why Team Northern Irelands's exclusion from several sports at Commonwealth Games costs us medal chances
We need international recognition for all our competitors to reach their potential, writes Nelson McCausland
The Commonwealth Games are over and Northern Ireland has emerged with a very creditable 12 medals. We congratulate all the members and support staff of Team NI, but Northern Ireland was unable to reach its full potential, because we were unable to enter teams in a number of sports.
The problem is not that the sports are not played in Northern Ireland, but that the sports and their governing bodies are organised in a way that prevents us entering teams.
In men’s hockey, there were teams from England, Scotland and Wales, but there was no team from Northern Ireland. England came third, Scotland came sixth and Wales came ninth, but Northern Ireland could not even enter a team.
The reason is that qualification for the hockey competition is based on the world rankings of the International Hockey Federation (FHI). England are 7th, Scotland are 23rd and Wales are 24th, but Northern Ireland do not appear in the FHI rankings and, so, are unable to enter.
Ireland appears in the world rankings in 10th place, above Scotland and Wales and not far below England. Indeed, Ireland is just one place below New Zealand, the team that won the silver medal in the Commonwealth Games.
It is clear, therefore, that hockey is in a healthy state in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, but there is no Northern Ireland team.
You could put together a team of Northern Ireland hockey players, but they would not be recognised by the FHI and would have no world ranking to enable them to qualify for the Commonwealth Games.
This issue was raised back in 2011 and, as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, I met a number of hockey players who were very supportive of a Northern Ireland team, but ultimately this has to be addressed by the sports themselves.
At that time, it was reported that “England, Scotland and Wales were eligible to qualify on the basis that they are separate national associations”.
However, there is no Northern Ireland association, because hockey is organised on a cross-border basis through the Irish Hockey Association. Ulster Hockey is simply part of the Irish Hockey Union.
The situation at the Commonwealth Games is easier with individual sports, but there is a difficulty with some team sports, such as hockey.
In February 2011, the head of sport in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure wrote on my behalf to the chairman of Ulster Hockey and said: “The minister believes that sport plays a very important role in marketing Northern Ireland and the NI brand. Every opportunity should be taken to promote Northern Ireland on the international stage.
“The inclusion of a Northern Ireland hockey team in the Commonwealth Games would certainly do this and, indeed, enhance Northern Ireland’s medal potential.
“It is also important that everyone in Northern Ireland embraces the shared future that is a major part of the (Northern Ireland) Executive’s vision for the future. That would include those at grassroots levels within the sports.”
Providing an opportunity for Northern Ireland hockey players, building a united community and marketing Northern Ireland — those are three good reasons for resolving this issue. It is about sport, but it is also about Northern Ireland and that is why it matters to everyone.
The next Commonwealth Games will be in Birmingham in 2022 and so now is the time for this issue to be tackled and, of course, hockey is not the only sport where Northern Ireland misses out.
There is a women’s hockey competition, as well as men’s rugby sevens and women’s rugby sevens and so, between hockey and rugby, Northern Ireland could have four more teams competing in 2022.
Sport has a role to play in building a shared and better future, as well as a prosperous future for Northern Ireland.
So now is the time for the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games council, Sport NI, the sports’ governing bodies and other interested parties to get around the table and map out a strategy to secure international recognition for Northern Ireland teams.