Northern Ireland has a long and proud tradition of sporting achievement. It is a legacy for which all sections of our community can be justly proud. Sport has the potential to be a unifying and positive force for good in our society. It can bring the public together, across the generations, in an atmosphere of camaraderie, celebration and healthy competition. Northern Irish football for example, is currently on the crest of a wave and is bringing a tremendous sense of pride and enthusiasm to us all. As with all sporting success, it represents an opportunity for this country to be seen in a positive light across the world, helping our society to demonstrate that we are emerging from our troubled past, working towards a brighter future and welcoming into our society, people from all religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
I want to stress my understanding that the vast majority of spectators and supporters want nothing more than to enjoy the atmosphere of a competitive event and to support their chosen team or player in a peaceable manner. Indeed I wish to recognise and commend the work of the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs on the outstanding work they have done. In particular their ethos of Football For All, promoted by the Irish Football Association, which encourages participation by everyone regardless of political affiliation, cultural identity, gender, religious background or disability. I congratulate them on their receipt of the Brussels International Supporters Award in 2006 for this vital work and their efforts for charity. They have played a key role in helping to make International matches inclusive events, conducted in an atmosphere that all fans can enjoy. I note remarks made by their Head of Community Relations, Michael Boyd, that efforts to combat abuse has had a positive impact on the numbers of spectators attending Northern Ireland matches, with regular sell out matches. The Northern Ireland shirt is now flying off the shelves.
Beyond football, there has also been positive outreach on the part of the GAA and other sporting bodies in Northern Ireland.
However, sadly we must acknowledge that all too often our local sporting events have been hijacked by individuals and groups of individuals and used as an outlet for expressions of bigotry, hatred and intolerance. While much of the abusive and often violent behaviour has come from the terraces, what is also disturbing to note is that allegations have also been made against players themselves.
Government has acknowledged this in the Action Plan on A Shared Future in which the introduction, following consultation, of the provisions of the Football Offences Act to Northern Ireland is a specific action point. Although any legislation should cover, as I have already said, all spectator sports, and may need some tweaking for the specifics of Northern Ireland, the GB Football Offences Act 1991 is, in our view, the best place to start. Not only does it avoid us reinventing the wheel, but this is tough legislation which has proven effective in stamping out hatred and hooliganism in English club football.
In our recent past, Northern Ireland has witnessed a catalogue of shameful incidents which have seen actual and alleged cases of sectarian threats
and abuse. The result has been that talented young sportsmen such as Neil Lennon and Darren Graham have withdrawn from sporting life in the Province, leaving it poorer for their absence. Players from ethnic minorities have also been subjected to outrageous abuse. This activity should not and cannot be tolerated in our society.
It has been very encouraging to see the excellent work carried out by the Irish Football Association (IFA) designed to tackle these issues, in particular their campaign to “Kick Sectarianism out of Football”. I also welcome their “Football Without Frontiers” initiative which is designed to combat both racism and sectarianism and which brings together experts on these issues, from across the UK and Ireland. International bodies such as UEFA, also have disciplinary regulations in respect of discrimination. UEFA has also introduced a ten point plan designed to address racism and sectarianism in football. These measures are not only welcome, but should be brought into the Northern Ireland context and supported by the Assembly through the legislative process.
The Football (Offences) Act 1991 provides a useful template for any legislation as it encompasses any act that takes place at the ground, including a time period of two hours before the advertised start of the match and up to one hour after its end. It makes the throwing of missiles, indecent or racialist chanting and going onto the playing area an offence. However, it does not tackle the issues of sectarianism, homophobia and sexism, which need to be addressed.
Research conducted by the University of Glasgow, published in October 2006, into Sectarianism within Scottish football, made a number of recommendations which may be useful in the Northern Ireland context. One of a number of valuable suggestions was that players should receive anti-sectarian training.
As players are role-models, particularly for the next generation, this provides an opportunity to combat hateful behaviour at every level.
There is also a very real need for additional funding to improve the overall standard of sporting facilities in Northern Ireland, in particular the levels of seating, which have a proven link to crowd-control.
In terms of penalties for offences committed, we can be guided by the Football Banning Orders imposed in England, Scotland and Wales. Such is the seriousness of these offences that I believe that in some cases a lifetime ban from domestic and international events would not be inappropriate.
In conclusion, positive steps to eliminate discrimination in sport have been proven to have not only societal, but real commercial benefits. I understand that issues of discrimination will also have to be addressed in the context of society as a whole and that this is a longer term objective. However, with the prospect of a new Stadium for Northern Ireland, sport here is entering a new era. We should do everything we can to support it. The current lack of legislation creates an environment in which stewards, fans and players are forced to put up with disgraceful behaviour.
I recognise that this issue crosses the remit of both DCAL and NIO, as it encompasses the issues of public order and incitement to hatred; however, I encourage the Minister to take the lead on this very important issue within our society. As elected representatives we must send a clear message that there is no place for hatred in any aspect of society in Northern Ireland and that competitors and true fans should be allowed to enjoy and participate in sporting activity free from persecution of any kind.