Picking up the Pieces Through Sport in Northern Ireland

imageLast summer, a student from France came to interview me about my work and research in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at the Irish School of Ecumenics. Eventually, he asked me a question about integration in my own personal life.

Despite all my school’s contacts with churches and community groups doing much good work for reconciliation, it struck me that the place where I mixed most unselfconsciously with people from different backgrounds was my running club, North Belfast Harriers.

It’s long been recognised that sport in Northern Ireland can be a medium for building better relationships among people of supposedly oppositional groups – especially sports that always have drawn from both ‘communities’, such as athletics, rugby or football.

Even when I was doing my doctoral research, published in 2008 as a book Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland, it was striking that quite a few people said that for them rugby – rather than any church-led peace efforts – had been more important for promoting reconciliation in their own lives.

Last Saturday’s latest instalment in the RTE Radio One series on ‘Picking up the Pieces’ in Northern Ireland provided further evidence for this with its programme on sport, which you can still listen to here.

Presented by Barbara Walshe, a graduate of my School’s Master’s in Reconciliation Studies, it covers a new initiative by the GAA, the work of Peace Players International, and the Game of Three Halves Initiative which brings children together to play rugby, football, and Gaelic football.

Reconciliation Through the GAA?

The GAA has of course traditionally been associated with the nationalist community, but the first part of the programme featured the Cúchulainn Cup, a project of the Ulster GAA. The programme focused on the Cuchulainn Cup in five schools in the northwest. The schools – some Catholic, some Protestant – came together to learn Gaelic Games. There was a trip to Croke Park, and some of the boys even travelled to Boston together to participate in the Continental Cup.

As a result, at least one boy from a traditionally non-GAA background has joined a local club and is playing as a goalkeeper.

Walshe also spoke with Ryan Feeney at Ulster GAA headquarters in Armagh, who explained that the GAA ‘took a conscious decision’ in 2008 to become an ‘anti-sectarian, anti-racist’ organisation. As he told Walshe:

… That was easier said than done. … [We saw the GAA as] non sectarian and non racist, but we had to actively ensure we were anti … [Some] people had a suspicion and fear of GAA.

He also related how Senator Martin McAleese asked people from the GAA to meet with senior loyalists. He said:

[That was] difficult because I was walking into a room with people I would have feared in the past and had no respect for … that was very difficult to do. [But]… I don’t lose anything by showing them respect and engagement.

Children and Sport

The second part of the programme features an interview with former rugby international Trevor Ringland, who is involved with promoting Peace Playersand the Game of Three Halves.

Peace Players International, an organisation with American roots, brings children from different schools together to play basketball – another traditionally non-sectarian sport in Northern Ireland. The organisation also operates in South Africa, Israel/Palestine, and Cyprus.

Peace Players works in multiple schools in Belfast, as well as other areas of Northern Ireland. Walshe caught up with Gareth Harper, director of Peace Players in Northern Ireland, when the programme was helping to facilitate the Game of Three Halves in Omagh through the Young Enterprise Northern Ireland programme. Harper explained:

[We] separate them onto integrated teams, and rotate around a series of stations to learn new skills in the sports … [they also] have fun with me talking about the issues sports lends itself to. … Some will be playing sports they’ve never played before … We want the kids of have fun first and foremost, to have learned new skills in terms of sport and community relations, but mostly we want them to become friends.

Ringland, speaking broadly about the various programmes, emphasised that sport is one way through which people can ‘work at’ society, to gradually build up better relationships that can lead to a different – and better – world. He said:

People do want a different world. What’s required is leadership – it’s not just going to happen. … You have to continue to work at your society. … We just have to ensure we work harder at it, because of the Troubles we’ve been through.

The series continues on Saturday with a programme on the churches, featuring the Unity Pilgrims of Clonard Monastery in West Belfast.

(Image from the Ulster Rugby Website)

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