Little-Pengelly with a hurley makes a good photo, but such gestures need to be followed by action

Sport’s can reconcile competing identities and nurture shared allegiances - this power must be harnessed

It is said that a picture can be worth a thousand words. The recent photograph of young Northern Ireland soccer fans at Windsor Park taking a spontaneous selfie with Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly spoke volumes about the promising relationship that seems to be developing between the First and Deputy First Ministers. The Sinn Féin First Minister’s decision to stand for the British national anthem before the match was a further welcome indication of the mutual respect between Britishness and Irishness that will be essential on this island, whatever its constitutional future.

Equally symbolic were the pictures last week of Little-Pengelly trying out her hurling skills during her joint visit with O’Neill to St Paul’s GAA Club in West Belfast.

Although the subtle and creative use of words has been central to progress at every stage of the Northern Ireland peace process, the recent photographs tell us as much about respect, identity and personal rapport as any number of lengthy pronouncements.

The challenge for the two leaders now is to demonstrate that the sporting symbolism can be translated into a spirit of sustained co-operation within the Executive and effective delivery for the people of Northern Ireland. Otherwise, there is a risk that the symbolism will be seen in retrospect as little more than gesture politics.

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Sport’s capacity to diminish the significance of political divisions, reconcile competing identities and nurture shared allegiances must be supported by action.

Sport itself can, of course, be divisive. However, for the most part, it has the capacity to unite people. It is difficult to be racist or otherwise prejudiced when the team you cheer for every week is a celebration of diversity. The intensity of political fault lines can be softened by the sharing of a sporting allegiance.

The healing potential of sport has often been evident in the relationship between these islands. I was fortunate to be present in the boxing arena at the 2012 London Olympics to witness the first two gold medals ever awarded for women’s boxing being won by Nicola Adams for Team GB and Katie Taylor for Ireland. The cheering of the British and Irish spectators, who seemed to have purloined all the tickets, was the loudest noise recorded throughout the 2012 Olympics. The entire crowd was on its feet for both fights, united in encouraging both Nicola and Katie.

I shared a sporting allegiance with former Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson, when I was Ireland’s ambassador in London. We attended several Spurs matches together. The first time I collected Peter from the House of Commons to attend a match, the policeman on duty happened to be from Northern Ireland. He seemed somewhat nonplussed when I identified myself as the Irish ambassador. I didn’t have the heart to add that we were attending a football match together. Neither of us were required to adjust our contrasting political perspectives, but it was positive, in the context of soft diplomacy, that we had a football passion in common. We later had the same photograph – both of us presenting a man-of-the-match award to Gareth Bale – on our respective mantelpieces.

Rugby continues to be the gold standard for how Irish sports can unite people. Whatever about our recent disappointment at Twickenham, we can celebrate that fans from across our island support a team that proudly represents the “four proud provinces of Ireland”.

Rugby has also contributed to friendship between this island and our neighbouring one. The memory of the England rugby team travelling for the match at Lansdowne Road in 1973, at the height of the Troubles, still provokes admiration. As does the first Ireland-England rugby match at Croke Park in 2007, played with perfect sportsmanship and the remarkable, respectful silence of the crowd for God Save the Queen

That O’Neill and Little-Pengelly attended Windsor Park as fellow supporters of the Northern Ireland soccer team was in itself symbolic. The First Minister aspires to Irish unity. I imagine that her first sporting allegiance may be to Ireland teams rather than Northern Ireland ones. The Deputy First Minister prioritises the United Kingdom and will be rooting for Team GB at this year’s Olympics. But their presence together in support of Northern Ireland was a significant sporting metaphor for their current shared challenge; namely, while remaining committed to their competing aspirations, to concentrate on making Northern Ireland work.

The sporting symbolism is important but, if its value is not to be frittered away, it must be translated into action to address the deep and diverse challenges facing Northern Ireland well beyond the sporting field.

Progressing the redevelopment of Casement Park GAA Stadium, one of the chosen venues for the 2028 European Football Championships, might be a good place to start. The joint hosting of the championships by England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is an important example of the power of sport to bring nations together. The use of a GAA stadium for a major international soccer competition likewise has the potential to bring people in Northern Ireland together and to demonstrate that Northern Ireland works.

Hopefully, this may be one early example of translating the spirit of mutual respect that we recently saw at Windsor Park and St Paul’s GAA Club into practical action on the ground.

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Rome and Brussels

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