Thank you to our leaders for being good athletes


In a compelling series of sports interviews with Northern Ireland party political leaders in the Belfast Telegraph this week, we learned that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would like to spend 90 minutes with Sir Alex Ferguson; Colum Eastwood’s favorite sporting moment is the Republic of Ireland’s victory over Italy in the 1994 World Cup; Naomi Long’s sports heroes are ice skating champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean; and Doug Beattie was serving in Kosovo when his beloved Ulster Rugby side won the European Cup in 1999.

Ichelle O’Neill’s ‘busy schedule’ kept her out, but while the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland was unavailable for selection, big players from the DUP, SDLP, The Alliance and the UUP have stepped up on serious sporting issues such as Casement Park, funding for sub-regional stadiums, the national anthem at international soccer matches, the debate over an all-world soccer team. ireland, the importance of Euro 2028 matches held here and the GAA grounds and clubs named after IRA members.

Beattie (UUP), Long (Alliance), Eastwood (SDLP) and Donaldson (DUP) did not dodge a question. There were no “we’re over the moon” or “take one game at a time” cliches here.

There was, however, a great reaction to their views on various topics. My God, they get hammered on social media, don’t they? Just for fun sometimes. I thought Northern Ireland football twitter could cut savagely but these tackles are nothing compared to what politicians have to put up with, often from anonymous trolls who don’t want to put their name or face on whatever it would be.

Politics is not my game, but when you come from Northern Ireland, like the air you breathe, it’s there right in front of you, especially when an election is on the way.

Truth be told, sport would be low on the priority list when parties canvass but, to paraphrase Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, sport is ‘the most important of the least important things’.

Every person in the country will like it or know someone who likes it, so yes, the sport is important.

For starters, it can be great for your mind, body and soul, helping with physical and mental health, whether you’re playing hurling or hockey, basketball or bocce and for kids, it keeps them active and offers an understanding of the value of teamwork. It can also give a sense of belonging and bring happiness. We can all do with some of that.

In our small part of the world, it has brought the divided people of Northern Ireland together more than anything I can think of.

We’ve all cheered as we watched Rory McIlroy charging at the Masters, Carl Frampton winning a world boxing title, Dennis Taylor triumphing at the Crucible or the Northern Ireland women’s soccer team qualifying for the Euros.

In a country that can be dominated by religion, identity and flags, people on sports fields are more interested in whether you can kick a ball straight rather than which foot you kick!

It was fascinating to hear what some of the most influential people in our society think about sport and what their parties will do for it after the election. There were some strong ideas and plans on that front from those who took the time to answer questions. Hopefully they can come to fruition in the weeks, months and years to come.


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