More RESPECT for good relations: The power of sport

Speakers at Londonderry YMCA conference
Speakers at Londonderry YMCA conference

Londonderry YMCA, in partnership with the University of Ulster (Magee), held a conference (29/11/2013) to “raise awareness of the power of sport in building more peaceful, prosperous, healthy, inclusive and welcoming communities”.

Entitled “Sport for Development in a Post Conflict Society”, the event highlighted the positive impact that organised sporting activities can deliver, especially at a grassroots level:

  1. Crime/Anti-Social Behaviour (“A child in sport is a child out of court”)
  2. Education (Attendance and Attainment)
  3. Health
  4. Community Cohesion
  5. Inclusion/Good Relations/Sectarianism and Racism
  6. Participation
  7. Economy and Employment
  8. Peacebuilding


Dr Adrian Johnston (Chairperson, Londonderry YMCA) welcomed the delegates and provided some introductory remarks. He explained the amalgamation of the role of sport and good community relations. Dr Johnston viewed sport as a catalyst for social regeneration.


Lisa Bradley (Ulster Business School) declared the need to go direct to hard to reach communities, and how sport was a proven method that works. From her business orientation, she described how sport includes management leadership skills (e.g. refereeing), which is what employers do look for in recruiting staff.


Chairperson of the Northwest PEACE III Partnership, Catherine Cooke, lauded the RESPECT programme as a successful model, one that had a transformative effect on all those involved: “RESPECT shows how different communities can participate together.”


The keynote speaker was Trevor Ringland, a former Ireland international rugby player who joked, “When I scored a try against England, apparently both sides of the Maze (Prison) cheered!”

Mr Ringland described the Northern Ireland peace process as one that began with conflict, evolving through paramilitary ceasefires, a cold war of stalemate to political agreement, to today’s situation, which he called “a cold peace”.

“We need to create a warm peace,” Mr Ringland suggested.

For him, a beauty of sport is that everyone involved care — there is the emotion of hate, to defeat your adversary at that point in time, without the hating. There is the conflict without the destruction.

Mr Ringland gave a personal review of his sporting career, how he personally developed as his career progressed. There was a stark juxtaposition between the freedom of the pitch and the fear for his father’s safety as a policeman: “The tricolour I played under was inclusive, versus the tricolour that wanted to kill my dad.”

For this veteran, a rugby team is a classic example of an interdependent society, including its aspect of suddenly finding yourself having to play a different role, temporarily, to support the larger group. He gave examples of how sport shows us that we can highlight different identities at different times, across different sports. Mr Ringland called on everyone to show all sporting symbols more respect.

He underlined the spirit that sport can bring to society, through personal friendships and transforming relationships: “Shared future happens day in and day out here. We just don’t celebrate it the way we should.”

Mr Ringland concluded with optimism about creating the future we want, citing examples of the Game of Three Halves as well as the work of the basketball programme, Peace Players International, with its purposeful community relations dimension.


Willie Lamrock (General Secretary, Londonderry YMCA) provided a background review of the RESPECT programme, which targeted low capacity, grassroots sports clubs in need to secure their operational sustainability.

RESPECT involved four local government district councils, and brought together 76 clubs. All clubs undertook a good relations programme as well as implementing a code of conduct, covering club officers, coaches and spectators. Other achievements included 174 individuals who went through first aid training and 192 through child protection training. £48,000 worth of practice and game kit was also given to the clubs, all with the RESPECT logo.

Mr Lamrock concluded with a call to the Northern Ireland Executive to invest in this work, especially for the social benefits that it brings to the participants and wider community good.


Lee Williamson, a Deputy Principal at OFMdFM, spoke to the Government’s current community relations policy, Together: Building a United Community. In specific regard to sport, he acknowledged the positive societal impact that sport can have, bringing people together for mutual interest. Here, he cited the cross-community sports programme supported by the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Brenda Kelly (Northern Ireland Regional Manager for Sported) described the motivating ethos of her organisation as supporting sport for social change, particularly in smaller clubs and grassroots groups. Sported opened up in Northern Ireland in March 2012, with now 200 member clubs from all six counties, £170,000 awarded in small grants, and 18 trained volunteer mentors.

Ms Kelly made a direct appeal to the audience to increase the awareness in the Northwest of Sported’s work, and identify candidates to become Sported mentors to assist clubs.

She explained their research work, which was carried out to determine and quantify the causal relationships between sporting programmes and social outcomes. The outcome was a monetary quantification of the effectiveness of various interventions. This has enabled sport organisations to make more focussed and successful fundraising appeals.

Justin McMinn provided a background description to the creation of the Northern Ireland Street League, which was set up for disadvantaged communities:

  • homeless
  • drug and alcohol dependents
  • asylum seekers and refugees
  • long-term unemployed
  • other disadvantaged persons

The five-a-side football teams play for two hours every Friday, in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry. The teams play four games per week, on 3G (artificial turf) pitches.

He listed a long set of benefits that football has brought to the participants: playing a team activity, improving one’s physical and mental health, instilling discipline, improving motivation, and breaking down sectarian barriers. Perhaps most significantly, players develop relationships with people that they would not otherwise meet.

Mr McMinn annotated a series of images, telling the story of how the Northern Ireland Street League qualified and competed in the Homeless World Cup.

His ambitions for the future include:

  • Grow the Street League in Belfast and the Northwest
  • Encourage female participation
  • Have a female team qualify for the Homeless World Cup
  • Provide training for vocational qualifications and employment
  • Provide referee courses
  • Build own Homeless World Cup pitches
  • Fundraising
  • Reach out to more excluded groups (e.g. probation/prisoners)

Kyle Ferguson described the aims of their “Sport for Peace” research project (Social Exclusion and Sport in Northern Ireland):

“To embed good practice among local organisations, in reconciliation, racism and sectarianism, through sports and activities, to produce models of best practice.”

He elaborated on the principle of using sport to reduce barriers of interaction, reinforce trust and develop mutual cooperation. For example, this could be changing a training day for the sake of improved social inclusion. Mr Ferguson added that we need to act better on this principle, and recognise those who do take risks in this regard. This is exemplified in the Community Leader Awards that take place.

Sean Barr, from the Western Education & Library Board, started by stating a well-known fact — Northern Ireland segregates its pupils in all forms — denomination, gender, language, and preliminary academic capacity.

Key indicators towards educational attainment are:

  1. Social deprivation
  2. Family
  3. School
  4. Community organisations
  5. Gender

Mr Barr pointed to research that shows that social class (social deprivation) is the biggest indicator of how well one does in school. He also put forward that as 80% of learning happens outside the school classroom, there is a vital role for schools’ engagement with families. Schools as institutions exist alongside parents and the wider community; school linkages are important. Community organisations need to consider how they can build social capital, through supporting education. Finally, why is gender disparity in education so salient in Northern Ireland, with certain boys faring so poorly?

In regards to the role of sport and education, Mr Barr presented the following contrasts:

  • Magnet or Repellent (bring people together or keeps them separated)
  • Winning or Well-being (aiming to win or other general objectives)
  • Competition or Collaboration (all-or-nothing or teamwork)

Michael McCusker runs Strive NI, which is a Community Interest Company (CIC) that develops local sport for an improved infrastructure to tackle a range of social issues.

He seeks to develop a consortia, to bring a range of skill sets, competencies and like-minded people together, focussed on delivering better outcomes for our most at-risk youth.

Mr McCusker gave examples of challenges that coaches face in dealing with social problems in certain locales.

He also highlighted the challenges of applying sport in community relations work. That is, sport cannot be a substitute itself for an individual’s self-identity and pathway for life.

Mr McCusker was asking us to think harder about the role of sport. He recommended the book, Sport for Development: What Game are We Playing?, by Fred Coalter.

Gary McClean (RESPECT Project Manager) summarised the speakers’ presentations, before inviting everyone to participate in a workshop discussion that took place after a lunch break.

Gary McClean recapped on the following points:

  • The Power of Sport to tackle social issues in the community including health, business, employment, citizenship, good relations etc..
  • That the Governmental Budgets should reflect this and be re-structured to support clubs whose volunteerism is limited and by their lack of resources
  • A problem is that Sports Development is not cohesive and good work is being done piece meal; and it needs to realise change to be harnessed to make positive impacts on the communities
  • Clubs through RESPECT, the participants here at Magee and the other initiatives we have discussed today are starting to realise the importance  to society of Sports Development and Community Development especially bringing together Sports Clubs and the Community for the benefit of all.
  • The messages from this conference need to be communicated to government departments from the grassroots up to the top and back down again.

Emerging issues from the workshop discussion included:

1. Continuity of good practice:

  • Clubmark badges bronze silver gold
  • Good Relations Charter showing that the club not only has signed up to anti – sectarian / racism / sexist etc. practise but are pro actively implementing them in their day to day activities in the sports community
  • Working Sports Hubs in local areas reaching across sports and community divisions
  • Involvement in Community Development where the clubs and hubs are more involved in community issues

2. Funding by Northern Ireland Executive:

  • The importance of sport to the realisation of “Together Building a United Community” and other wider societal initiatives such as mental / physical health, employment, business, law and order ones etc. and that Sports importance  is raised at departmental and political party level.

3. Forming a lobby group (forum, campaigning):

  • To enable 2. (above) to be developed with relevant community, voluntary, political and statutory organisations and associations.

4. Developing a cohesive approach among sporting organisations:

  • As with 3.
  • To provide agreed standards for Clubmark, Good Relations, Child Protection etc.

5. Pulling together individual work as evidence:

  • Utilising national and international research and reports from University of Ulster, Sported and other relevant interested organisations
  • Utilising local research and reports exploring the role of schools and their relationships with sports and youth clubs, investigate the Sports Forum Strabane etc..

6. Formation of a Sport Resource Centre:

  • Providing information  and advice on sporting issues
  • Providing information and advice on governance
  • Providing a focus for networking and development
  • Supplying good relations guidance and training for clubs
  • Direct and advise clubs on sustainability and funding 

Selected thoughts from the conference:

  • Adrian Johnston explained the amalgamation of the role of sport and good community relations and viewed sport as a catalyst for social regeneration.
  • Lisa Bradley declared the need to go direct to hard to reach communities, and how sport was a proven method that works.
  • Trevor Ringland espoused that the Northern Ireland peace process as one that began with conflict, evolving through paramilitary ceasefires, a cold war of stalemate to political agreement, to today’s situation, which he called “a cold peace; we need to create a warm peace”.
  • Catherine Cooke, lauded the RESPECT programme as a successful model, one that had a transformative effect on all those involved: “RESPECT shows how different communities can participate together.”
  • William Lamrock concluded with a call to the Northern Ireland Executive to invest in this work, especially for the social benefits that it brings to the participants and wider community good.
  • Lee Williamson acknowledged the positive societal impact that sport can have, bringing people together for mutual interest.
  • Brenda Kelly explained their (SPORTED) research work, which was carried out to determine and quantify the causal relationships between sporting programmes and social outcomes. The outcome was a monetary quantification of the effectiveness of various interventions.
  • Justin McMinn listed a long set of benefits that football has brought to the participants: playing a team activity, improving one’s physical and mental health, instilling discipline, improving motivation, and breaking down sectarian barriers. Perhaps most significantly, players develop relationships with people that they would not otherwise meet.
  • Kyle Ferguson elaborated on the principle of using sport to reduce barriers of interaction, reinforce trust and develop mutual cooperation. For example, this could be changing a training day for the sake of improved social inclusion.
  • Sean Barr pointed to research that shows that social class (social deprivation) is the biggest indicator of how well one does in school. He also put forward that as 80% of learning happens outside the school classroom.
  • Michael McCusker highlighted the challenges of applying sport in community relations work. That is, sport cannot be a substitute itself for an individual’s self-identity and pathway for life.
  • Gary McClean outlined that a problem is that Sports Development is not cohesive and good work is being done piece meal; and it needs to realise change to be harnessed to make positive impacts on the communities

All agreed that this event was a good start, a collection of like-minded enthusiasts. But further group action is needed, particularly for the objective of wider society (and especially elected representatives) to take sport more seriously in developing good relations in Northern Ireland.

 

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