Rioting undermines community relations efforts in football

There was a significant level of trouble surrounding the World Cup Qualifier Northern Ireland Vs Poland this weekend. There appeared to be elements of sectarianism and racism featured in the incidents.  A number of Polish supporters used flags and emblems to provoke Northern Ireland fans. Interestingly this follows an incident in which a Polish national was severely beaten in Derry in May 2006. rioting also comes just weeks after the Unite Against Racism UEFA conference in Warsaw Poland, during which there was a commitment to support anti-racism measures particularly in the run up to Euro 2012, which is to be hosted by Poland and Ukraine.The Irish Football Association and the Northern Ireland Football Supporters Association have endeavoured in a sustained campaign over the last eight years to rid sectarianism, racism and bigotry from football in Northern Ireland. This campaign has been largely successful and has resulted in increased attendances.For years, football in Northern Ireland suffered from a poor image due to hooliganism. So bad was the situation that only 4,000 people were going to international games. The sustained work to address these issues has resulted in people feeling safer at Windsor Park and that the values promoted were of sport not sectarianism, there was increased respect and support for the international team. That the team improved on the pitch, has also helped to increase attendances.The Irish Football Association’s Community Relations Department led by Michael Boyd have developed a number of initiatives to build good relations with the community in general and with the Polish supporters in particular in the run up to this weekend’s game. Recognising that there is a significant Polish community in Northern Ireland, the IFA, Crusaders FC and the Northern Ireland Polish Association hosted a Respect Festival at Seaview from 11.30am-3pm in the build up to the main game at Windsor Park.It is unfortunate that a minority from both nationalities have created a bad atmosphere around the game. The rioting witnessed in Belfast this week will put off many people from supporting soccer in Northern Ireland. It also undermines the good work of the Amalgamated Supporters Clubs and the Community Relations Unit.  Sport has the power to unite communities. Racism and sectarianism have only the power to divide and exclude.Measures such as increased policing and changing the time of the matches have a role in responding to the challenge but the major efforts in society’s answer to this must be in education and improved community relations. Sport has a role to play but so also does government. Racism and sectarianism are a feature of society as a whole and as such this must be recognised in targetted measures with education playing a central role. Efforts to create an intercultural northern Ireland must be supported and must not cease.

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