Can sport heal old wounds (or enflame them)?

The third of three parties to our A Long Peace? document of 2003, Trevor Ringland had a piece in the Observer yesterday, extolling the capacity of sport to “sustain relationships when others were destroying them”. Yet it would be hard to dissuade anyone who had read our international soccer threads from thinking that, in fact, sport leads to precisely the opposite outcome: i.e. mutual loathing between local rival supporters. Of course, in Rugby occasional tempests between north and south are kept in-house (and not always in the healthiest of ways). In soccer, the relatively recent success of the Republic’s team has exercised a pull on fans from Northern Ireland, and is even beginning to draw players too, which appears to challenge this notion that sport can heal wounds, even as it doles them out on the pitch.

But Ringland argues that the on-the-ground work can make a real difference:

Much has been achieved already. Belfast Harlequins RFC share their ground with St Bridget’s GAA and Ballymena RFC with the Antrim hurlers. Linfield Football Club have opened up their training pitch for use by a camogie GAA team and Teemore Gaelic club have signed up to the One Small Step [no, not this one] campaign.

A simple notion embraced by all sports – rugby, football, Gaelic and others – is that they represent all the people whether it be playing for the county, province or country. A simple gesture but one that many respond to. It pulls people out of the trenches.

It remains an open question as to whether this bottom up approach is enough to deal with the top down pressures of success/failure that have help to condition the levels of conflict within the soccer code. Irish soccer survives in a fairly fragile ecology. Prior to 1982, only Northern Ireland had managed to claw their way to the finals of a major international tournament, and poaching and swapping players was common. In a poorer commons, conflicts of interest are likely to be all the sharper.

Niall Quinn may have put his finger on something two years ago when he highlighted a key difference between the two codes:

I think the Setanta Cup has been great. At least we are exploring. We didn’t for a long time, and the Setanta Cup seems to be getting more and more backing.

I’m on the Irish Sports Council andwe’re looking at ways of getting involved for next year’s competition. It may be that that’s the route through which we discover each other. It’s as if there’s an imaginary football wall with another stadium that side and we’re playing this side. Maybe the more cross border games that are played the more we understand each other.

That’s what happens in rugby. The teams from Ulster come down here and play club matches all the time. So they are shuffling and crossing all the time, whereas in football it’s only trickling at the moment. But if that’s the best way forward that might lead to young teams getting together.

Judging by the regular inter-fan flaming on Slugger, we have a long way to go.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty