Northern Ireland news

Ending anthems and flags in sport `controversial and unlikely'

UU Professor Owen Hargie joined by junior minister Jennifer McCann and the report's co-authors

Changes to the use of flags and anthems in soccer, rugby or Gaelic games would be controversial, difficult and unlikely, a report has found.

'Research on Social Exclusion and Sport in Northern Ireland' found that more people believe anthems should remain than think they should be removed.

The three-year project by Ulster University (UU) explored public perceptions on a range of key issues as they relate to sport, including peace building and cross-community engagement, flags, anthems, venues and ethnic minority participation.

While progress has been made by the main sporting organisations in becoming perceived as more inclusive, much work is still to be done, researchers said.

Almost 90 per cent of those questioned believed sport is a good way to break down barriers between Catholics and Protestants.

More than two-thirds said sports-based peace-building projects are effective, and this figure increased to 91 per cent for those who have actually taken part in such a project.

In addition, 84 per cent believed sports to be more open and inclusive than 10 years ago.

Participation and interest in soccer, Gaelic games and rugby continues to reflect the community divide but 57 per cent said there is nothing wrong with different sports or teams being for Protestants or Catholics.

More than half agreed that segregated schools are a major cause of segregation in sport.

Two-thirds of Catholic respondents said they would like to see more Catholics supporting the Northern Ireland international soccer team, while only a slightly higher proportion of Protestants (60 per cent) than Catholics (56 per cent) said they would be willing to attend Windsor Park if offered tickets.

Only 1 per cent of Protestants watched `a lot' of Gaelic football in the last year compared to 31 per cent of Catholics.

Almost two out of five Protestants said they would attend a match in Casement Park if offered tickets compared to 78 per cent of Catholics.

Furthermore, more people agree that national anthems should remain part of sport (42 per cent) than believe they should be removed (36 per cent).

The issue of anthems at GAA matches was raised recently by former Armagh captain Jarlath Burns who said he would support the ending of the playing of the Irish national anthem if it helped the sport reach out to Protestants.

The report recommended that, in relation to the contentious issue of flags and anthems in sport, "some form of negotiated, synchronised change is required between sports that can command the support of the political parties and the wider public".

However, it added: "Changes to the use of flags and anthems in soccer, rugby or Gaelic games would be controversial, difficult and indeed unlikely. This suggests that in order for sport to be `de-politicised', change must occur to create a community which promotes mutual respect and understanding."

The report further recommended that action at school level is crucial to the task of breaking down sectarian barriers in sport, while it suggested that the GAA should continue, increase, and effectively communicate its inclusivity measures aimed at encouraging people from all traditions and backgrounds to play and watch Gaelic games.

"The results of our research highlight how sport presents both challenges and opportunities in Northern Ireland's ongoing path away from the violence and division of the Troubles," said UU Professor Owen Hargie.

"This is the beginning of a much wider debate and we look forward to seeing our recommendations shape the future generation of sport."

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