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Is Ulster Hockey now ready to go it alone with association?

Irish hockey league saga could strengthen momentous move towards independence

Irish battle: Stevie Arbuthnot of Lisnagarvey chases Banbridge’s Stephen Dowds in last week’s Irish Hockey League encounter
Irish battle: Stevie Arbuthnot of Lisnagarvey chases Banbridge’s Stephen Dowds in last week’s Irish Hockey League encounter

By Graham Hamilton

The Irish Hockey Association may have won the battle to push through a full All-Ireland League from next season but they may not have won the war.

Yes, it looks like the 10-team series for both men and women will go ahead from September but the competition may only have a short-term life as Ulster clubs ponder the possibility of forming an independent Northern Ireland Hockey Association.

Last week's meeting, called by Ulster hockey and which representatives from clubs and school committees north of the border were in attendance, was held behind closed doors and will be reconvened on Thursday January 22 when votes will be taken on various options to be drawn up.

But we can reveal that some clubs and schools - upset at the way the IHA showed disregard to the many issues that a full IHL throws up - have shown an interest in Ulster hockey becoming independent.

And, with that in mind, the meeting was asked to consider whether the forming of a Northern Ireland Hockey Association was a route they really want to go down and whether they wish the Ulster Hockey Management Board to develop a scenario paper in relation to this.

As I've said before, that would be something that takes time. And it would also take years to build up a high world ranking, such is the slow method employed by the International Hockey Federation.

But competing in the Commonwealth Games might act as a carrot to some, and indeed the possibility of competing in an Olympic Games isn't as far-fetched as it seems, due to the current World League qualification procedure in place.

Effectively, a new Northern Ireland team would have to start with the minnows in the Round One series ... but it should be strong enough to win through to Round Two which is where the Irish team currently start their qualification programme.

They would, however, have to start in the lower European competitions and the Champions Challenge competitions, but again should be strong enough to win promotion relatively quickly, albeit on a two-year cycle each time. Whether Ulster clubs decide to go down that route remains to be seen.

But the fact that such a scenario has even been mentioned underlines the depth of resentment north of the border as to how the IHA declined to take on board the many issues of concern.

These included how the process would be financed, what effect it would have on clubs faced with weekend stays, what impact it would have on the various Branch league structures, the widening gulf that would come between IHL and provincial league clubs, the migration of players to IHL clubs which could see smaller clubs fold, and the impact it would have on school competitions and underage players.

Ulster hockey in general, though, accepts that a full IHL will strengthen those clubs involved and perhaps help the international teams improve their world ranking.

And last weekend's exciting action in the current IHL format was a good example of what is good about our game here.

But the argument is that there are too many issues that need to be resolved before implementation, including at what cost, and in particular to those left behind.

We won't know what options are put on the table for that crucial January 22 meeting until closer to that time, as clubs, schools and committees are given the chance to digest what was put forward to them.

But, in the meantime, it seems Ulster Hockey will attempt yet again to force some answers from the IHA - whom they believe have refused to get involved in meaningful consultation - by requesting them to hold a meeting with representatives from all the branches, sooner rather than later.

If the governing body turn up their noses again, or fail to come up with answers to the various issues, then it could strengthen the resolve of those in Ulster who would welcome an independent association despite the problems that would come with it.

Belfast Telegraph

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