Now, not everyone will agree with this piece from
…in 2014, it was found that 63% of those surveyed believed that sport has the potential to break down traditional inter-community barriers. And in 2015, a major study of sport and social exclusion in Northern Ireland found that 84% of participants believe that sports are more open and inclusive than they were ten years ago.
Significantly, the report also revealed an increase in support for the Northern Ireland football team among the Catholic, nationalist community. Two thirds of Catholics surveyed stated a desire for greater support for the team from within their own community.
The “Football for All” campaign’s mantra is to make sure football is welcoming and inclusive to all members of society in Northern Ireland. The campaign deserves great credit for its attempts to clean up the divisive image of the Northern Ireland football team.
As a result, the choice of following both teams through the Euros – rather than one or the other – has become a more palatable option for football supporters than ever before.
Further research indicates that there is a growing clamour to consider starting an all-Ireland football team. Some politicians have supported this approach, which has already been adopted by the rugby and hockey unions. Most of the people in favour of this proposal come from the Catholic community (70%, compared to 39% in the Protestant community).
There’s no determinism attached to this, of course. The popularity of the idea of a single island team may reflect more easily shared allegiances in sporting codes in which participation tends to be loaded either towards unionism or nationalism in Northern Ireland.
Soccer, on the other hand, is burdened with being popular within both communities: with English football clubs being one of the only forms that provide genuine cross-community allegiances. Still, we are a long way from the days when the NI captain had to withdraw because of a death-threat.
The progress since those days of real stress and tension has been immense, much of it down not to the drift of circumstances but to active situational leadership on the part of the IFA. Perhaps others with a more serious political role might learn from their example.
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