Confusion amid the disunity: John Barrett surveys the grounds for dispute when politics and religion come into play with sport

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The Independent Online
PICTURE IT: Barcelona '92, two Irishmen in Olympic boxing finals. They are Michael Carruth, a member of the Republic's defence forces, and Wayne McCullough, from Belfast's Shankill Road. They wear the green singlet of Ireland and their families sit together on a tense and historic morning for Irish sport. Catholic Michael and Protestant Wayne have become very close. Back home the whole of Ireland is on the edge of its collective seat. Boxing is an all-Ireland sport and the country seems united. Idyllic]

McCullough gets a brave silver, Carruth excels himself and wins gold, Ireland's first since Ronnie Delany shooked the 1,500 metres field in Melbourne in 1956. The country prepares to greet its heroes.

First stop is Dublin, where a civic reception is accorded. The McCulloughs are overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome.

Days later, Belfast Council decided to honour McCullough. What about Michael Carruth? The McCulloughs were horrified to hear that the Dubliner would not be welcome, let alone honoured, up north. Imagine what would have happened if McCullough had won gold. The lrish tricolour and anthem for a lad from the Shankill?

Rugby too is a 32-county sport in Ireland, a unifier, on the face of it. Look closer and it transpires that very few Catholics up north play rugby, mainly because nationalists don't feel at home in such company. Interesting, too, that no Irish anthem is played at Ireland's away internationals. It's an unwritten agreement that takes care of certain sensitivities.

Hockey and cricket have all-Ireland status but have so little patronage that they could not reflect unity on any significant scale. Most Catholics give both sports a wide berth, in any case, because, like rugby, they are elitist and of British garrison origin.

Barry McGuigan was so popular a boxer that both Ireland and Britain claimed him. This was because McGuigan, a native of Clones in the Republic, moved to Belfast and took out British citizenship to qualify for the British title. But did he break down the barriers? Many nationalists will never forgive him for joining 'the other side'.

Golf, professional and amateur, thrives under a 32-county banner; this week Ronan Rafferty, from the north, and Dubliner Paul McGinley teamed up for Ireland in the World Cup in Florida. In athletics and cycling, the border has for long been a festering sore and, even within the Republic, there have been serious divisions between those who accepted partition and those who claimed 32-county jurisdiction. In 1956, when the 32-county cycling association attempted to contest the Melbourne Olympics, and actually got to the starting line, it was their rivals from the Republic who alerted officials and forced their ejection. That incident still rankles.

Which leaves Ireland's national games, Gaelic football, hurling and handball. These are controlled by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and are played on an all-Ireland basis. In GAA terms Ulster comprises nine counties rather then the six that the politicians call Ulster. Members of the British forces and the RUC are debarred from membership. GAA members have on occasions been designated 'legitimate targets' by loyalist paramilitaries. Members also resent bitterly the way the army uses GAA pitches to park tanks and helicopters where it knows they are not welcome. It is seen as harassment, which sounds like a political word and is appropriate in this context.

On Wednesday, in Belfast, one of the Irish teams will be playing an away fixture. Confused?

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