Stormont's Immature Attitude To Sport
Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!
I’m 59 and have lived in Northern Ireland all my life. Living in Belfast for the last 37 years, I’ve watched the city transform. In my teens, there were security gates to access the main streets, and the city was closed from 6pm. There was very little nightlife anywhere. Now we’re like any other city. Pubs, clubs, restaurants and a vibrant art scene. I feel proud of my city and how quickly it has grown. I guess that’s one of the reasons I get so mad at our politicians, many of whom haven’t moved on at all.
In most post conflict societies, sport is used to bring people together, whether watching or participating, and that’s been true in Northern Ireland too. However, sport has also been politicised to the detriment of those who want to compete, to be inspired. In NI, the majority of sports are led by an all-Ireland governing body, meaning the majority of funding comes from Sport Ireland.
I play golf and my governing body is the ILGU (Irish Ladies Golfing Union). The male equivalent is the GUI (Golfing Union of Ireland). As with any all-Ireland sport, Ireland is broken down into the four provinces, Ulster (all 9 counties), Munster, Leinster and Connaught. An amateur golfer could initially represent their club, then their province and finally represent Ireland. This progression applies to most sports I know. Rugby, rowing, athletics, GAA and golf. Boxing and football are notable exceptions.
Athletes from NI also qualify to compete for Team GB & NI. Lottery funding has made UK sport highly professional and therefore team selection highly competitive. Those athletes who are currently on the squad, have had to relocate away from NI in order to be near their coaches and centres of excellence. That involves high financial and emotional costs and a commitment to achieve.
Many sportsmen and women just want to play their sport on a daily basis and compete.
The problems arise, for some, if they have serious talent. The level of talent to compete for their country at European level or globally in World championships, or the Olympics. Rory McIlroy, our most successful athlete, attempted to explain the complexities in a recent interview with Paul Kimmage. Following Rory’s decision firstly to represent Ireland at the 2016 Rio Olympics, then his decision not to compete at all, he drew criticism from both sides of “the divide”.
During the Rio Olympics, the DUP made a decision to only tweet congratulations to any NI athlete who competed for GB & NI, ignoring those competing for IRE. Their social media policy during the Paralympics was mostly silence. Sinn Féin only congratulated IRE athletes.
Which brings me to Phillip Eaglesham. He’s a paralympian. An ex Royal Marine who acquired Q fever while serving in Afghanistan 6 years ago. It’s a debilitating, deteriorating illness caused by a rare airborne bacteria. 2 years ago, Phillip was at an all time low. Then he qualified to compete in the Paralympics in the shooting team and it was a huge boost to his morale. He’s everything you could ask for in a sportsman. An inspiration. The DUP and Sinn Féin chose to ignore him. For me, he’s a symbol of the politicisation of sport in NI. Sinn Féin ignored him as an ex British soldier, the DUP ignored him as he competed for IRE.
There was no homecoming for our athletes, no open top bus parade. No use of the feel good factor to inspire the next generation to take up a sport.
What do I want for the future of NI? I want a Stormont where all the parties have the confidence to praise the citizens of NI, regardless of which country they choose to compete for. To put their citizens aspirations before their own political desires. Then I will be fully proud of Northern Ireland the adult.