The campaign for a new amateur boxing body in Northern Ireland is gathering pace with 17 clubs said to have registered their intent to break away from the Irish governing authority.
At a meeting with Sport NI in Belfast on Thursday, former UK sports minister Kate Hoey joined a delegation of local political and boxing club representatives, who believe the time has come for young boxers to compete as British rather than Irish competitors if they so wish.
The long-serving Labour MP said: “There is absolutely no reason why the Northern Ireland Sports Council shouldn’t be recognising the Northern Ireland Boxing Association.
“This is about boxing in Northern Ireland where young people’s future opportunities will be to box for their own country.”
The idea was first raised by Sandy Row in 2012 after the club complained of sectarian abuse and physical attacks directed on its members while competing in nationalist areas.
In a 57-page dossier, Sandy Row said the overtly Irish symbolism and attitudes of both the Dublin-based and local governing authorities were intimidating – and that the club’s concerns were not being addressed.
As a result, a total of 17 clubs have now expressed interest in exercising their right – as enshrined in the Belfast Agreement – to be identified as British boxers for the purpose of international competition and want Sport NI to back their bid.
At present, all Northern Ireland boxers compete as Irish by virtue of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) affiliation.
Billy McKee of the Midland Amateur Boxing Club in north Belfast was one to those who attended Thursday’s meeting.
He said: “We hope we are successful in our bid to get a Northern Ireland Boxing Association recognised. If not today, then in the very near future from the Sports Council.
“It’s important to us as a boxing association that we are recognised, and our first aim is to be recognised, before we can do anything else in boxing circles.”
When Sandy Row first published its dossier, club secretary Ian McSorley said he had been lobbying for a return to the traditional red and blue vests during competitions, as boxers from nationalist areas entering the ring in Irish tricolour attire was creating “a very unhealthy atmosphere” for the young Protestants.
Mr McSorley said his attempts to secure reassurances, that his boxers could compete safely in “politically neutral environments”, had been ignored by the boxing authorities.
“We have had boxers tripped up on their way into the ring, spat at and verbally abused and we can’t keep putting young people in that position,” he said.
An independent commission – chaired by former Community Relations Council chief Duncan Morrow – was set up to investigate the claims and later reported that “there were incidents of sectarianism and racism” to be addressed.
At the time Dr Morrow, director of community engagement at the University of Ulster, said:“The independent working group acknowledged that there were incidents of sectarianism and racism and therefore believes that the IABA should work to eliminate a number of identified chill factors, develop a clear process of intervention, and formalise a robust disciplinary and resolution process to ensure that incidents are dealt with as they arise.”
Speaking ahead of the meeting with Sport NI, North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds said: “I think this is an important step in giving young Northern Ireland boxers the chance to compete for their own country.
“They shouldn’t be denied that choice and we are very hopeful that Sport NI will recognise that.”
TUV leader Jim Allister also joined the delegation. He said he had “absolute confidence” in the justice of the case.
“It is outrageous that Northern Ireland boxers have been denied a route whereby they could ultimately aspire to box for their own country, the United Kingdom.”
Mr Allister said he would be reminding Sport NI that the Belfast Agreement is supposed to guarantee the rights, “not just of those who want to espouse their Irishness but to those who want to espouse their Britishness”.
As an example of the existing anomaly, the clubs have pointed out that if Andy Murray had been born in NI rather than Scotland, he would not have been eligible to play for Britain in the Davis Cup.
The IABA has said it is opposed to any change in the current set-up of amateur boxing in Ireland.
In a statement it said: “As a result of concerns by Sandy Row ABC, the IABA commissioned an independent report into boxing in Ulster.
“The report included the opportunity for all key stakeholders to contribute and resulted in a number of recommendations which the IABA has accepted and are progressing.
“The report also made it very clear that, in its independent opinion, the formation of a Northern Ireland governing body for amateur boxing would be divisive to the sport.
“The IABA have not been informed by any of its members of any such desire to set up a separate body for NI and would ask all clubs to continue to contribute towards the delivery of the recommendations in the independent report.”
Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin is among those who do not support the creation of a separate body.
The Sinn Fein minister has repeatedly rejected calls by the Sandy Row club, and various unionist politicians, that clubs not affiliated to the IABA should be funded by Sport NI.
Ms Ni Chuilin welcomed the independent report into boxing in the Province, and said it was important to “acknowledge the good work which goes on throughout the sport” of boxing.
She said the report was dealing with “a small minority of cases, based on factors which originate outside the sport, and usually prompted by those with no interest in boxing”.
Ms Ni Chuilin also said: “We are disappointed with the allegations made against the IABA. We are conducting a thorough investigation into them – when the investigations are complete we are open to holding discussions with the Sandy Row Boxing Club in order to resolve any grievances they may have and to reach a common solution which is mutually beneficial to all clubs attached to the IABA.”
Following yesterday’s meeting with the local boxing clubs’ representatives, Sport NI said it would consider a new document presented by the delegation “in the coming days”.
A Sport NI spokeswoman said: “A number of items were discussed, including the process for a body to become formally recognised as a Governing Body of Sport, and SNI’s commitment to ensuring that athletes can express their Britishness or Irishness and represent their country (Great Britain or Ireland) in their sport, as detailed within the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
“SNI recognises the meeting was constructive in clarifying the complexity of sport in a Northern Ireland context and we look forward to a resolution which recognises the rights of all in Northern Ireland.”