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Summer focus on football scores goals for peace in NI

Presence of Northern Ireland and Republic in Euros will bind communities more closely

Sport and politics: One of the most eye-catching survey findings was that a majority of people in the North (54 per cent) would actually prefer a single all-Ireland team.

In the Snow Patrol song, Lifening, Gary Lightbody sings, “Ireland in the World Cup, either North or South”, then adds yearningly, “This is all I ever wanted in life”.

Without doubt, what we will witness in the coming weeks – Ireland, not in the World Cup but in the European Championships, and both North and South – is a thing worth singing about, the fulfilment of the dreams of thousands of Lightbody’s compatriots, especially those north of the Border who have waited 30 years for their team to qualify for a major international tournament. Back in 2002-2003, Northern Ireland infamously played 13 consecutive matches without scoring any goals.

A cynic might see desperation in Lightbody’s sentiment: both sides are so bad he’ll cheer on either. But significant is the generosity. Supporting both Irish football teams has not been the norm on an island where almost all aspects of life have been touched by a violent sectarian history.

Between 2012 and 2015, we carried out a major Northern Ireland Executive-funded research project on sport, sectarianism and social exclusion in the North. Among other things, we wanted to find out to what extent sport was still tainted by religious and political division, and what the barriers to greater inclusivity were. The project chimed with current global interest among policymakers, peace activists and academics in sport as a peacebuilding tool. Must sport be “war minus the shooting”, as condemned by Orwell, or does it have “the power the unite people in a way that little else does”, as eulogised by Mandela?

When Ireland was partitioned in 1920, political tensions made maintaining the all-island administration of soccer impossible, hence the existence of the confusingly labelled Irish Football Association (IFA) (Northern Ireland) and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) (Republic of Ireland).

Traditionally, northern Irish nationalists have supported the Republic’s team as a way of expressing alienation from the Northern Ireland state and their Irish identity. For unionists, support for Northern Ireland has been a public display of loyalty to “their” country as British, separate and legitimate. Before matches, God Save the Queen is sung.

Politics and sport

In 1998, following 30 years of political violence, the Belfast Agreement attempted to end the poisonous zero-sum logic of the conflict. Political power would be shared and people would have the right to be British, Irish or both. Yet unionist insecurity in the face of apparent nationalist advances meant that their commitment to Northern Ireland, in politics and in sport, remained as strong as ever.

The start of the new millennium saw a spike in sectarian trouble at Northern Ireland home matches and the forced retirement of a Catholic player, Neil Lennon, on the back of death threats. Forced to confront its political demons, the IFA launched a high-profile, community relations and PR campaign called “Football for All”. It was publicly backed by, among others, Gary Lightbody.

This campaign has been widely praised for creating a more inclusive, relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere at matches. Indeed, our survey of 1,200 people found that similar numbers from a Protestant unionist community background and Catholic nationalist community background (60 per cent and 56 per cent respectively) would be willing to attend a Northern Ireland game at Windsor Park if given tickets. Even more striking, a slightly higher proportion of Catholics (71 per cent ) than Protestants (65 per cent) agreed the IFA was “taking active steps to welcome all traditions”.

And yet, can the Northern Ireland soccer team ever really be a focus of shared allegiance when the very existence of Northern Ireland continues to be contested by a section of its population, and certain rituals, like the playing of the British national anthem, remain anathema to many? In our survey, opinion was closely divided on the topic of anthems, with slightly more (42 per cent) disagreeing that “anthems should not be part of sport in Northern Ireland” than agreeing (36 per cent). Protestants were significantly more likely to hold this view.

One of our most eye-catching survey findings was that a majority of people in the North (54 per cent) would actually prefer a single all-Ireland team. As might be expected, most of these identified as being from a Catholic nationalist background. The hope for better results was also likely in the mix (the fieldwork was done in 2013 when both teams were doing rather less well than now). Still, the finding underlines the IFA’s ongoing challenge of mobilising support beyond its traditional (Protestant/unionist) base.

Team effort

Success should help. The good fortunes of the South African and Bosnian soccer teams during their difficult political transitions show how skill on the pitch is a major factor in uniting diverse societies behind a team. The very presence of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the Euros will hopefully expand the horizons of both sets of supporters who may come around to Gary Lightbody’s North-and-South outlook.

With Ireland continuing to delicately navigate a number of politically charged centenaries, a shared summer of good-natured soccer fandom might be just what’s needed.

David Mitchell is assistant professor, conflict resolution and reconciliation at the Irish School of Ecumenics. Ian Somerville is reader in the department of media and communication at the University of Leicester, and Owen Hargie is professor of communication at Ulster University