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‘The power of sport’

Trevor Ringland, former Ireland rugby player who has been honoured with an MBE for his community work, told David Hennessy about the role sport can play in bringing communities together ahead of a Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma panel discussion on similar issues.

This week The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith will host a conversation titled Sport as a Unifier- The Contribution of Sport to a Peaceful Future in Northern Ireland.

Thomas Niblock will chair the chat with Trevor Ringland from Belfast who played rugby for Ireland and the new President of the GAA Jarlath Burns.

It is the latest event from Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma who aim to highlight the legacy issues with regards to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, to encourage reconciliation and to promote positive mental wellbeing for those affected and now living outside Northern Ireland.

Trevor Ringland made 31 competitive appearances for Ireland, scoring nine tries.

Since retirement, he has been involved with Peace Players International, an organisation devoted to promote inter-religious unity in Belfast through sport.

He is also a solicitor and politician. From June 2013 to July 2014, he served as Co-Chairman of the NI Conservatives.

Trevor Ringland told The Irish World: “Peace Players works on the principle those who play together can learn to live together.

“It is a symbol of what can be achieved if you actually want to build a relationship with those you live with.

“It started with the Holy Cross dispute, it was awful.

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“Relationships had broken down between the communities that lived in North Belfast so we started to work in Holy Cross School and Wheatfield School, which are two schools that are 50 yards apart but all those years ago they may as well have been 1000 miles apart.

“We used the sport of basketball and we brought them together.

“On the morning we were bringing them together, some parents went to their lawyers to try and get it stopped but the rest of the parents said, ‘No, we’re going ahead’.

“That’s the thing that gives you hope.

“In any society and conflict there are those people who do want to have a relationship, who do want to live in peace with each other.

“We brought the kids together. Within 10 minutes, they were mixing.

“They travelled on separate buses (at first).

“A short time after that, they travelled on the same bus together.

“We run a tournament called the game of three halves which is rugby, football and Gaelic with the fourth half being community relations.

“We play North Belfast against West Belfast against East Belfast against South Belfast, with all of the peace walls that divide up some of these areas.

“It’s really refreshing to see the kids from North Belfast taking on the kids from West Belfast, which is the Shankill and the Falls.

“Sport has that ability to do that, you put a different umbrella over them and suddenly they’re all cheering for each other under the North Belfast umbrella.

“It’s the power of sport.

“After every conflict, the work begins to rebuild.

“I think, increasingly, the old divisions are certainly not to the forefront in the way they were in the past.

“We’ve shown a resilience to anybody that tries to press those buttons again, and say, ‘No, we’re not going there again’.

“We tend to forget one of the key factors we didn’t deteriorate into civil war was that there was always a middle ground in Northern Ireland that refused to go to where the extremes wanted to take them and always were building relationships.

“One aspect of that is sport.

“Over 200 all- Ireland bodies exist at the minute, which people don’t appreciate.

“I think the political world is only waking up to the fact that most people on the island have worked out a relationship that they wanted to have and that’s through formal structures.

“Irish rugby is one great example.

“There are still some challenges. But there are solutions to those challenges and sport can play a really good role in doing that, and does.

“One of the things on the island I do think we need to do is face up to our hatreds: Look in the mirror.

“One group of people who did that was the Northern Irish football fan.

“That famous night in November (1993) a match between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in Belfast, it was the week of the Shankill bomb and Greysteel.

“It was a horrendous time.

“I was at that match and the atmosphere was appalling.

“Sectarianism was rife.

“And I said, ‘I’m not going back again’.

“But a friend of mine, who would have been from a nationalist background who played for Northern Ireland, said, ‘If you don’t go, Trevor, then you leave it to the idiots’.

“And it was a fair point and I always bore that in mind.

“And years later, I was on the Sports Council for Northern Ireland and a young community Relations Officer Michael Boyd came to present to us and talk about his new appointment and his plans to actually change the nature of things at the Irish Football Association and Northern Ireland matches.

“We listened to him and said, ‘We’ll give you every support we can’.

“There were 16 supporters clubs, there were only five or six thousand people going to World Cup qualifying matches in those times because the atmosphere was so bad.

“The football fans themselves had worked out that their hatreds were destroying the game they loved.

“They brought in new songs and anybody started singing a sectarian song, the clubs had all learned the words of these new songs, and they drowned them out with the new songs.

“The atmosphere now is family friendly.

“20,000 people go to the matches on a regular basis.

“That came from the fans themselves saying ‘we need to change’.

“On the island, I think there’s still a bit of that needs to be done.

“As a rugby player, I never had a bad experience across the whole island.

“But at the same time, there is a significant constituency that would say that, ‘The violence was necessary, it had to happen’, or ‘we had to use it’.

“I just don’t buy into that at all.

“A police family: We lived in West Belfast before the troubles and life was absolutely normal, no threat whatsoever.

“We then went to live in a police station and the troubles broke out at that point and then things started to change and obviously the relationships deteriorated.

“But despite all of that, my father had those friendships back in West Belfast that he had as a young constable when he went back in there as a sub divisional commander in the 70s.

“Those were scary times.

“But one of the interesting stories is a friendship that he had from before the troubles through a love of motor cars, and motor racing.

“One guy had ended up in the IRA, and they were going to shoot my father.

“He couldn’t live with that and he made contact and warned my father to drive home a different way that night.

“Talking about friendships through sport, that’s a pretty good example of the importance that can be created because the personal relationship overcame the hatreds.

“The key thing is right through those difficult times rugby continued to be played, hockey continued to be played, all these all Ireland sports continued to be played and people travelled across the border quite often protected by the Garda Special Branch when they were south of the border just to play a club matches week in week out.

“That all continued during the worst of times.

“There’s really good lessons to be learned through sport.”

GAA is also key and you will be joined by Jarlath Burns at the upcoming event…

“Any time I talk to GAA clubs I have always said, ‘You’ve tremendous sense of community’.

“What I say is ‘Won’t you extend your sense of community to those who previously felt alienated from you?

“You’ll find some people if you reach the hand to them, they won’t take it but you’ll find plenty of others who will.

“That’s what we find with the game of three halves, it’s a great way of involving the three main sports here.

“One of our problems here is that still too many of the schools are still divided on a religious basis and even a cultural basis.

“The concept is simply we want our young people to get to know each other at a young age and stay friends throughout their lives.

“The constitutional position will be whatever it is in the future, but let it be one that’s based around friendship and not demographics, some argue demographics is just hate by another name whereas actually building genuine relations across the island is the way to do it.

“The GAA has an important role to play in that.

“The late (former Ulster Provincial Secretary) Danny Murphy was very good in that.

“He said, If Down are playing in the All-Ireland final, he wants all the people of Down to support them.

“By that simple gesture, a lot of people will give them their support. And some won’t, but that’s their problem too.

“But you’re saying ‘I want you to support me’.

“It’s a two way challenge, because you also have to look at yourself and say, ‘Well, where am I to blame in this relationship If they’re not supporting me?’”

The Peace Process has brought changes in GAA rules.

Rule 21 prevented any members of the ‘Queen’s forces’ playing GAA. This rule was abolished after the formation of the PSNI.

“A friend used to invite me to the All- Ireland final.

“I said, ‘Look, out of principle I won’t go because you have the ban on the security forces, rule 21 but if you change it, I’ll go’.

“So he rang me the next day (after the rule was abolished) and I said absolutely.

“And then the change the rule 42 to open up Croke Park. when Lansdowne Road was being rebuilt.

“There was that great match: England against Ireland at Croke Park (in 2007).

“It was an amazing event.

“To me what rugby was able to accommodate was a Britishness that could be Irish and an Irishness that could be British.

“It was the only time I’ve ever sung all three anthems: The Soldier’s Song, God Save the Queen and Ireland’s Call.

“A powerful event.”

We have had Brexit bring questions of identity back up but do the dividing lines between communities fade through the generations?

“They fade if you actually challenge them and break them down, because it’s social engineering to keep them there. It’s not social engineering to break them down.

“One challenge to me once was this, ‘Trevor, is it not social engineering to get children to play sport together?’

“And I said, ‘No, it’s social engineering to get them not to play sport together’.

“And so if you’re going to have a successful society, whether it’s Northern Ireland or the whole island or these islands, it is about finding ways that we actually build proper relations between people.

“I think that middle ground that existed in Northern Ireland that absolutely rejected the violence wherever it came from and said, ‘This was not the way to do relationships on the island’, I think that’s the proper basis for the future.

“It is a challenge. It’s a challenge to those who try to continue on the hatreds who try to keep people in their trenches.

“One of the greatest examples of sport actually overcoming great hatred was the Christmas truce in 1914 on the Western Front.

“The soldiers themselves came out of their trenches and played football together, had beer together, shared food and stories.

“The mistake they made was they let their leaders put them back in the trenches.

“It is challenging leaders who try to put you in trenches for their own narrow agendas.

“It is trying to identify leaders who actually encourage you to come out of your trenches.

“Over the last 25 years, a lot of people have been coming out of the trenches.

“Religion is of less relevance to the vast majority of us with an increasingly diverse society as well.

“That’s good and healthy thing.

“Because we’re fed up with just the flag being thrown up when we have other issues that are far more important.”

Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma was established in 2016. The project was founded by Michael O’Hare. Michael’s Sister, Majella was killed in Co. Armagh in 1976, when she was just 12 years old.

“What we’re trying to ensure is it never happens again.

“In 1996 when the IRA ceasefire broke down, I was involved in the peace International where an Irish rugby team took on some of the best players in the world in Dublin.

“On the pitch that day, we had a young person whose mother, father and sister were killed in the Shankill bomb.

“In retaliation for the Shankill bomb, Loyalists went into a bar and murdered people in Greysteel, we had another young person whose brother and his girlfriend were murdered in that.

“And another young fellow who was best friends of Tim Parry who was killed in the Warrington bomb.

“We said, ‘What can we do to make sure this never happens again?’

“And as I stood on the rugby pitch I thought, ‘Well, rugby does it as well as anybody else, and better than most’.

“It’s bringing out those values.

“It’s bringing out the values of Danny Murphy reaching out and the work the GAA are doing.

“It’s the work of the Northern Ireland football fans, the work rugby has done over the years and that’s supporting all the other work that’s been going on too.

“We don’t want our children dying anymore, we don’t want our children going to prison. We don’t want our children murdering people and removing those hatreds that lead to so much of that can be done.

“Sport has a role to play in that but it’s a marathon without end.

“It’s for the next generation to take it on

“I said to my father, ‘Was there any indication living in West Belfast in the 1960s that our society was going to break down the way it did?’

“And he said, ‘No, there were tensions but no concept that it was going to deteriorate the way it did’.

“So that’s a warning to many societies.”

Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma- Sport as a Unifier takes place at The Irish Cultural Centre on Thursday 7 March from 7.30pm.

TTT is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Reconciliation Fund.

For more information on Troubles, Tragedy and Trauma, click here.

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