Minister hopeful of resolution to allow gymnast Rhys McClenaghan to defend Commonwealth title
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has said she is hopeful of a resolution which will allow gymnast Rhys McClenaghan to defend his title at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
Ms Hargey met representatives from the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) today following a row which erupted when the governing body said that 22-year-old McClenaghan and two Northern Ireland teammates were ineligible to compete in the Games later this year because they routinely represent Ireland in worldwide competitions.
The decision has been fiercely criticised by politicians who said that it is contrary to the Good Friday Agreement which enshrines the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland to identify as British, as Irish, or as both.
McClenaghan pipped Max Whitlock to pommel gold in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast four years ago.
Ms Hargey had called for an urgent meeting with the FIG.
Speaking after the meeting, she said: “It was a productive meeting. I think the focus from everyone around that table is that it is the interests of the gymnasts that we want to find a resolution to.
“We are working at pace with the federation and those local organisations to try and get a resolution as soon as possible.
“So as soon as have more information on that in terms of progress we can make an announcement, hopefully in the short time ahead.”
She added: “I think it was an open and productive meeting with the federation. I think that they want to work with us, they are waiting on more information and detail that we can send over in terms of the Commonwealth Games Association here in the north.
“We are working at pace to ensure we can provide that information and to see if we can find that resolution, particularly in advance of the Games that are coming up in Birmingham.
“I think everybody was resolute that the interests of the gymnasts have to be first in this and I think we were all committed in doing this and to try to find a way forward as soon as possible.”
Asked if she was confident that McClenaghan and the two other gymnasts would be able to compete in Birmingham, Ms Hargey said: “There is no guarantee of that yet, but it was a productive meeting. We will do everything we can to ensure that they can partake in the Commonwealth Games.
“I think it has unified everyone across these islands in terms of them taking part in the Games.
“I think the federation was open to the case that we were making.
“We hope to find a resolution to this sooner rather than later.”
Last week, McClenaghan said on social media: “I feel that FIG do not understand the gravity of the Belfast Agreement and the unique situation pertaining to Northern Ireland.
“Every other sport understand the eligibility of Northern Irish athletes in accordance with Commonwealth Games.
“I would like to ask the FIG to reconsider their decision and allow us to compete at the Commonwealth Games.”
Fellow Northern Ireland athletes Eamon Montgomery and Ewan McAteer have also qualified for the Games.
The FIG had earlier suggested the three gymnasts change their Irish registration in order to compete at the Commonwealth Games in July.
The federation said in a statement last week: “The request to allow these gymnasts who currently hold an FIG licence for Ireland (IRL) to compete for Northern Ireland at the 2022 Commonwealth Games was discussed by the FIG Executive Committee during its meeting on May 25.
“After deliberation, the Executive Committee rejected this request.
“The main rationale for this decision is a violation of the FIG Statutes and rules: gymnasts taking part in any international competition sanctioned by the FIG must have a valid FIG licence of the national federation they represent.”