Separate NI boxing body 'divisive'
The setting up of a separate body for boxers in Northern Ireland will only heighten religious divisions and threaten to split the sport for generations, a new report has claimed.
But a plan should be considered which under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement would allow Ulster boxers to declare for Team GB rather than Ireland at elite level, such as the Olympic Games, according to an independent working group which examined allegations of sectarianism and racism outside the ring.
It followed complaints last year by Sandy Row Amateur Boxing Club in south Belfast.
Dr Duncan Morrow, a former chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, headed the group, which acknowledged there had been incidents of sectarianism and racism.
He said the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA), the sport's governing body, should work to eliminate chill factors, develop a clear process of intervention and formalise a robust disciplinary and resolution process to deal with them.
However, the group ruled out Northern Ireland having its own administrative set-up.
Dr Morrow said: "The creation of a separate federation for boxers in Northern Ireland would deepen and accelerate sectarian divisions - potentially splitting boxing for generations to come on sectarian lines."
A strategic review of the association's current governance structures in Ulster to drive its future agenda and ensure that the key focus goes back on boxing is one of a number of recommendations in the report.
Others include limiting team colours to two rather than three; investing in community relations training for coaches and volunteers; establishing safe and neutral venues for championship shows; introducing a formal selection process for Commonwealth Games coaches; and developing a protocol and code of conduct around the flying of national and contentious symbols at boxing bouts.
Trevor Ringland, the former Ulster, Ireland and Lions rugby player, Ryan Feeney, head of the Ulster GAA's community development, strategy and public affairs, and ex-amateur boxer Billy Boyd, who is currently operations manager for the Belfast Community Sports Development Network, were also part of the working group, which was established by the IABA in the aftermath of complaints from Sandy Row last year.
The current and complicated process to allow an individual in Northern Ireland to express their national identity - an issue which affected many sporting organisations in Northern Ireland - had been identified by the group, according to Dr Morrow, who is director of community engagement at the University of Ulster.
Boxers belonging to clubs in Northern Ireland are required to box for Ireland unless they relocate and affiliate to a club in Great Britain.
The group said it was of key importance that the legal implications of the Belfast Agreement for athletes in Northern Ireland was clarified.
The IABA, the British Amateur Boxing Association and the Amateur International Boxing Association should work together to identify the implications of the agreement for national representation and implement any recommendations, including devising a plan to accommodate Ulster boxers who might represent Team GB.
Dr Morrow said: "The Belfast Agreement has enshrined an individual's 'birthright... to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both as they so may choose'. The group does not believe that this right is currently appropriately recognised for many sports men and women across many disciplines."
He added: "The group believes that the implications of the right to identify choice as established in the Belfast Agreement should be clarified to ensure that young athletes in all sports are not disenfranchised and can express themselves appropriately. We recognise that the issue of national representation will require serious engagement between sporting bodies and politicians across the jurisdictional divides."
Northern Ireland Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said boxing had broken down divisions and brought people together and its impact went beyond individuals and into the wider community.
The report dealt with a small minority of cases, based on factors which originated outside the sport, and usually prompted by those with no interest in boxing, she said. It should not undermine the positivity within boxing, nor take away from the hundreds of people who have found it a positive force for good.
She added: "However, as the sport continues to grow and develop, this report raises a number of key issues to be addressed. It provides the IABA with a path to take boxing into the future and enhance its reputation of bringing together communities from across the north of Ireland and beyond.
"It is clear that there is no room for sectarianism in sport and the IABA must take the necessary actions to address this issue. While issues of national identity are a matter for the individual athlete, it is important that such issues do not disenfranchise our stars of the future from progressing through their sport.
Jim Allister, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, said the Sandy Row club had been vindicated.
"Sandy Row have lifted the lid on a serious problem within boxing in Northern Ireland and this report which catalogues a series of failures," he said.
"When Sandy Row bravely put their head above the parapet they were met by cat calls claiming the problems they highlighted did not exist. This report proves they do. Those who have dismissed the claims of SRABC within the boxing fraternity owe them an apology - as does the minister who devised criteria for funding which deliberately excluded Sandy Row.
"It should act as a catalyst for change in boxing and indeed other sports in Northern Ireland where people are denied the right to represent the United Kingdom on the international stage."
Fergal Carruth, chief executive of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA), said b oxing has a lot to be proud of.
"Throughout the worst of the conflict in Northern Ireland boxing provided an opportunity for both sides of the community to unite for love of the sport," he added.
"We are confident that we can continue to build on this reputation and build even stronger community relations in Ulster.
"The IABA will examine the findings in the report and take some time to consult with its membership before delivering a response in the new year."