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Irish FA confirm limited fans will be allowed to attend Danske Bank Premiership fixtures after confusion

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Around 600 fans watched Northern Ireland’s clash with Austria (Liam McBurney/PA)

Around 600 fans watched Northern Ireland’s clash with Austria (Liam McBurney/PA)

PA

Around 600 fans watched Northern Ireland’s clash with Austria (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Irish FA have confirmed that a limited number of spectators will be allowed to attend Danske Bank Premiership games over the next four weeks, in accordance with Stormont Executive regulations.

Elite sport was allowed to continue despite the new restrictions brought in by the Stormont Executive on Thursday to try and limit the spread of Covid-19, and the belief was that fans could still attend games provided social distancing was in place and adhered to.

But confusion reigned on Friday night when a letter from the Department of Communities was sent to clubs informing them that games would have to be played behind closed doors, only for that to seemingly be overturned by the First Minister on Twitter.

In a Tweet, Arlene Foster said: "The regulations do not ban spectators in the grounds of elite sports. The existing position is maintained permitting a limited number to attend. Preposterous for clubs to be told anything to the contrary."

The decision not to allow fans into grounds came just 90 minutes before Coleraine and Ballymena United were due to kick-off the first game of the season at the Ballycastle Road Showgrounds last night, with many spectators already at the venue, leaving the club in what chairman Colin McKendry described as an "impossible position".

The Bannsiders, after seeking assistance from the PSNI and IFA, decided to allow those fans in as they felt it was in the interest of public safety to do so, while on social media the decision from Stormont was widely criticised by sporting figures across the country.

But now the IFA have confirmed in a statement that, after analysing the new regulations published last night, all Irish League games can be played with fans in the stands, provided each individual club determine it is safe to do so.

In the statement, IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson commented: "The football industry in Northern Ireland, from governing body and NIFL level to right through the pyramid, has worked tirelessly to ensure protocols are in place for the safe return of fans at games.

“We have proven, just last week when we had 600 impeccably behaved supporters at our UEFA Nations League game against Austria, and at the Irish Cup final in July, that games with fans can take place safely at the National Stadium at Windsor Park and we know our clubs in the NIFL have similarly been engaging with fans to do likewise.

“We are committed to playing our part in reducing the threat of Covid-19 in this country however we will continue to press the Northern Ireland Executive on what financial measures will be offered to the football industry in Northern Ireland as the income streams of both the Association and its member clubs has been severely reduced by the capacity restrictions on spectators.”

The Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) also released a statement on the decision, revealing they will be requesting a meeting with government officials to discuss the matter further but encouraging clubs to "let football do the talking" today.

"Following clarification from the Irish FA the NIFL Board note that spectators are permitted to attend Danske Bank Premiership matches," read the statement.

"The NI Football League has held a meeting with Premiership clubs to provide an update on the events and while there have been many frustrations of the situation we were placed in in the last 24 hours today is a day to let football do the talking.

"NI Football League officials will be requesting a further meeting with government officials as a matter of urgency but today we would remind all spectators to follow PHA guidance and all protocols as directed by clubs."

The decision will also be of good news for Northern Ireland's European Championships play-off final against Slovakia, which should now be able to be played in front of a limited number of fans, while Ulster Rugby should be able to open the gates of Kingspan Stadium for their games against the Dragons and Glasgow Warriors over the next four weeks.

Belfast Telegraph