Belfast Telegraph

British or Irish, we should all be allowed to pick

In some sports in Northern Ireland there is no parity of esteem for the pro-Union community. That has to stop, says Kate Hoey

As performances at the Olympics and Paralympics in London become warm memories, attention turns to finding a lasting legacy from the Games.

In my work with London mayor Boris Johnson, we are trying to ensure that Londoners see tangible benefits in their own communities. In Northern Ireland, too, it is crucial that the grassroots of sport benefits and prospers.

Athletes from Northern Ireland played their part in the success of the British and Irish Republic teams and now is the time to reflect on how more youngsters can have the chance to enjoy sport and compete at the highest level.

For this to happen, there must be radical changes to its governance to enable Northern Ireland citizens to be fully part of British sport.

As the Games ended, a report from Sandy Row Amateur Boxing Club outlining a decade of sectarian and racial abuse suffered by their young club members was published.

It was quite shocking to see in detail what they had suffered. What was even more shocking was the seeming indifference to the abuse by the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) — letters not responded to for months and then meetings held where nothing changed.

I visited the club and met some of the young people who had been driven out of the sport. What was very clear was that, for clubs that have members who see themselves as British, being forced to be part of an all-Ireland governing body is not helpful.

That is why I support their call for a Northern Ireland amateur boxing association to be set up so that clubs can choose to affiliate either to it, or IABA, or indeed both.

The reality is that, if you are a boxer in Northern Ireland, you will not be able to be selected for a British Olympic team, unless you move to England.

The three other home countries have their own governing body and then together choose the British team. The selectors can't consider Northern Ireland boxers as they are deemed to be Irish.

The Belfast Agreement recognised our twin traditions — British and Irish. People can choose to have an Irish, or British, passport — or both.

They can choose the kind of school they go to, they can choose the type of music they listen to, they can choose the sport they watch. The only thing that they cannot choose in many of our sports is the flag they wish to compete under.

In tennis, clubs can only affiliate to Tennis Ireland and in swimming Swim Ireland. Sport NI will only recognise one governing body per sport and each has its own history.

A few years ago, I took up the case of a young talented Holywood tennis player, who wanted to be part of the British Lawn Tennis Association. He was as British as Tim Henman and aspired to play for his country, but was unable to benefit from any LTA help, or support, as he was considered Irish.

The British Amateur Swimming association would love to have Northern Ireland clubs in membership. Swim Ireland refuses and the international swimming governing body recognises Swim Ireland as having jurisdiction over the whole of the island.

In hockey, Iain Lewers, an outstanding player from Northern Ireland, had originally no choice but to play for Ireland — and then had to sit out of international competition for three years and take legal action before he finally became a member of the British team in London 2012.

Ironically, taxpayers in my constituency of Vauxhall in south London see some of their money going to help fund athletes who then will be competing for a foreign country against the British team.

The excuse for this is that they will compete for Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games. But does the Republic pay anything back when they put on an Irish shirt? I doubt it.

Recently, on the BBC’s Nolan programme, I was accused by a Sinn Fein councillor of being sectarian, because I supported a governing body for Northern Ireland boxing. How on earth is that sectarian, if supporting an all-Ireland one isn't?

It would seem that standing up to be British in Northern Ireland is portrayed as sectarian, whereas wanting all-Ireland institutions is being ‘inclusive’.

If a youngster from Northern Ireland was denied the chance to be part of a Republic of Ireland team, nationalist politicians would be shouting from the rooftops about discrimination and human rights.

It is quite wrong that any international sports body should have the right to determine which part of the UK is British. It is time for Sport NI to recognise governing bodies in Northern Ireland where they are wanted.

Surely freedom to choose is what we should demand and what the Belfast Agreement stated. Isn't that what Sport NI supported in football where, until they have played competitively for Northern Ireland, footballers can choose to switch to play for the Republic.

Sport can unite people, but only if the rules are fair. In some sports, there is no parity of esteem for the pro-Union community.

Sports politics should not prevent anyone being treated as an equal citizen.

It is time for those politicians who have shied away from the uncomfortable politics of sport in Northern Ireland to stand up and be counted.

My good friend Ed Curran wrote in the Belfast Telegraph last week: “Whatever flag they fly, be proud of our sports stars.”

I agree. But let’s make sure they can choose the flag.

Kate Hoey was born in Co Antrim. She is MP for Vauxhall in south London and was Minister of Sport from 1999 to 2001

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