This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Mitchell, D., Gudgeon, D., & Kim, D. J. (2022). Sport and strategic peacebuilding: Northern Ireland and Korea compared. Peacebuilding, 10(1), 37-50. https://doi.org/10.1080/21647259.2021.1936940
- Sport has distinct advantages as a tool of peacebuilding: “it has popular, often emotional, appeal and commands mass attention,” and it can operate everywhere from the grassroots level, where it can aid in relationship-building across divides, to the elite level, where it can serve a symbolic, unifying function and also as a venue for cooperation that may spill over into other areas.
- Strategic peacebuilding requires coordination between different levels and among different actors, and sport has the capacity not only to contribute to peacebuilding at these various levels but also to “bridge the gap between elite level agreements and the experience of ordinary people,” enabling them to participate in the peace process.
- In Northern Ireland, especially since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, sport has increasingly become a tool of peacebuilding both at the elite level—where sport organizations have endeavored to make their participants and fan base more inclusive of both Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist communities—and at the grassroots level—where sport has been used to bring “people together across the community divide.”
- In Korea, since the early 1990s, elite-level sport exchanges and unified teams (and, to some extent, grassroots/civil society sport exchanges) have helped foster a common, pan-Korean identity, and have had spill-over effects into political negotiations and cooperation.
Key Insight for Informing Practice
Sport can be used strategically to encourage a shift to more inclusive identities—while still providing space for the expression of more particularist identities—thereby supporting a country’s broader peacebuilding process and, due to its wide appeal, enabling large swaths of the population to find their place in this process as agents—rather than detractors—of peace.
Sport engages people in multiple ways—through individual physical exertion, relationship-building among team members, or the national pride and unity fans might feel seeing their team excel. David Mitchell, Dan Gudgeon, and Dong Jin Kim are interested in how sport—through these various forms of engagement—can be harnessed as a tool of peacebuilding, with a specific focus on Northern Ireland and Korea.
Framing their analysis in terms of strategic peacebuilding—which highlights sport’s interrelationship with broader peacebuilding processes and the importance of peacebuilding activities at multiple levels—the authors examine sport’s peacebuilding role on both elite and grassroots levels, drawing on “public attitude surveys, political and policy documents, previous research, and media commentary,” along with participant-observation.
Strategic peacebuilding: “peacebuilding becomes strategic when actors at all levels, whether from below, above, inside, or out, begin to link and coordinate with differentiated spaces and processes to effect the wider desired change.”
Lederach, J.P., & Appleby, R.S. (2010). Strategic peacebuilding: An overview. In D. Philpott & G. Powers (Eds.), Strategies of peace: Transforming conflict in a violent world (p. 36). Oxford University Press.
In Northern Ireland, sport has been a source of both division and reconciliation over the years. Although the de factosegregation of schools/school sports and distinct fan bases for different sport organizations have reinforced divisions between the Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist communities, sport has increasingly become a tool of peacebuilding since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. At the elite level, sport organizations (like the Gaelic Athletic Association [GAA]—typically Catholic/nationalist—and Northern Ireland soccer—typically Protestant/unionist) have endeavored to make their participants and fan base more diverse and inclusive. Furthermore, a new, more inclusive rugby anthem and ice hockey team have both been established, people from both communities have rallied around successful Northern Irish athletes on the international stage, and political leaders have leveraged the conciliatory symbolism of attending games associated with the “opposing side.”
The main constraint these efforts face is persistent disagreement over state symbolism and national identity—namely identification with either the UK or the Republic of Ireland, with many still feeling attached to their respective national anthems and other symbols—making it unclear which “peace-supporting meanings certain sports… should convey.”
At the grassroots level, playing sports has provided a constructive outlet for youth who might otherwise join paramilitary groups and has brought “people together across the community divide.” These efforts have intensified since the 1998 agreement, with the implementation of “sports-based peace and social inclusion projects,” as well as the sharing of otherwise segregated schools’ sport programs—though these efforts come up against the “sectarian geography” of Northern Irish locales, whereby sport clubs tend to reflect the single identity/community of the area where they are located.
In Korea, although during the Cold War elite-level sport was just another arena for rivalry between North and South, it has more recently served largely as a space for cooperation—and sometimes as a foundation for political negotiations. The early 1990s saw various forms of inter-Korean sport cooperation, including inter-Korean soccer matches and unified teams playing at international table-tennis and soccer competitions—with successes creating collective enthusiasm back home. This sport cooperation ended in 1991 (with an athlete’s defection to the South) but resumed in 2000 with the first inter-Korean leaders’ summit. The agreements from this and subsequent summits all included proposals for sport exchange, demonstrating its importance for the peace process. Sport cooperation ebbed and flowed over the next two decades depending on the political climate, but both countries marched together at various Olympics and other international events in the 2000s and 2010s, including the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. It was through the North’s participation there, amidst heightened military/nuclear tensions, that relations began to thaw, resulting in the third leaders’ summit.
Although these elite-level sport exchanges have fostered a common, pan-Korean identity, providing symbols (anthem, flag, etc.) that could serve as foundations for a future unified Korea, and their broad appeal engages more people in peacebuilding, grassroots/civil society sport peacebuilding initiatives have been more difficult to organize, due to tightly controlled contact between North and South Koreans. Nonetheless, sometimes these have been allowed in the form of cross-border trade union soccer games, Hyundai-initiated unification basketball games, or jointly organized youth soccer tournaments (e.g., the Ari Sports Cup). Though limited, these civil society efforts have been significant, especially when state-level negotiations have stalled, as they leave the door open for engagement between North and South—such as when North Korea first considered participation at the Pyeongchang Olympics while participating at the Ari Sports Cup in 2017.
In sum, sport has distinct advantages as a tool of peacebuilding. It has “popular, often emotional, appeal and commands mass attention.” It can also operate everywhere from the grassroots level, where it aids in relationship-building across divides, to the elite level, where it serves a symbolic, unifying function and also as a venue for cooperation that may spill over into other areas. Strategic peacebuilding requires coordination between different levels and among different actors, and sport has the capacity not only to contribute to peacebuilding at these various levels but also to “bridge the gap between elite level agreements and the experience of ordinary people.”
Although sport may come across as “trivial” compared to the serious political matters of peace and war, this research reminds us that strategic peacebuilding is all about coordination between peacebuilding actors and activities across all levels and sectors of society. Cultural institutions like sport are critical to reconciliation and peace: They shape the identities that people find meaningful and provide an emotional and spiritual connection that can motivate individuals to reach beyond themselves and find common purpose, all while engaging “regular” people in the peace process.
Peace advocates would do well, therefore, to take sport seriously as an important peacebuilding lever, keeping the following suggestions in mind. First, peace advocates can and should coordinate with elite-level sport organizations to inculcate a more inclusive ethos, membership, and fan base for highly visible teams, spanning divisive identities, and coordinate with grassroots sport organizations to ensure that these are encouraging team-building among diverse community members and across lines of conflict, thereby strengthening the social fabric to be more resilient to future violent conflict. Second, peace advocates should also think strategically about the bigger picture—and particularly about timing—in their coordination efforts with sport organizations, especially in relation to what is currently happening (or not happening) in Track I negotiations. As the Korea case demonstrates, persisting with both elite-level and grassroots-level sport exchange and cooperation efforts, especially amidst political/military tension, can leave the door open to—and spill over into—political negotiations and cooperation.
Less intuitively, this research also helps us think carefully about how to address people’s attachments to more exclusionary identities, symbols, and rituals that may still hold meaning for them. Although the peacebuilding impulse may be to simply discard or supplant these due to their role in animating violent conflict, they are not so easily shed, as they are tied up with personal relationships, sensory memories, and emotional responses—the song a grandfather used to sing, the sport once played after school with older siblings, the flag hoisted high in the neighborhood on certain holidays. Recognizing this, what do we (as peacebuilders) do about the “stickiness” of these attachments to more exclusionary identities? To be more precise, when considering the role of sport in strategic peacebuilding, what weight should be given to the symbolic practices of a particular community—does creating space for their continued expression strengthen or weaken peacebuilding overall? One way forward, suggested by this research, is to use sport strategically to cultivate overlapping spheres of identity and symbolic practice so that those old, familiar anthems, colors, and flags can still provide comfort, and those deeply felt identities can still find expression, but at the same time new, more inclusive songs and rituals and identities can also take root and develop meaning in new spaces and among diverse groups.
Mirroring the novel mechanisms for overlapping political allegiances and jurisdictions developed in Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, rugby in Northern Ireland provides a model for how sport also can cultivate these multi-layered identities and allegiances. There is an Irish national team with players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and then there are also professional provincial rugby union teams, including one for Ulster (comprising Northern Ireland, plus a few counties in the Republic of Ireland) and three entirely in the Republic of Ireland. Rugby fans in Northern Ireland therefore can and do cheer for the all-Ireland team at the Rugby World Cup and then also for the Ulster team at European or more local matches—spaces where Catholics/nationalists and Protestants/unionists can express their Irish and Ulster/UK identities, respectively, while at the same time also strengthening their connection to the other community’s identity. Players on the Irish national team also have the option of singing the Irish national anthem or the newer, more inclusive anthem “Ireland’s Call”, or both. Similarly, peace advocates in other contexts can consider how to use sport to create avenues for the expression—rather than suppression—of people’s deeply felt, particularist identities alongside the cultivation of new, more inclusive identities, enabling all of these identities to begin to take on new meanings as they evolve to include more diverse adherents.
This shift to more inclusive identities—while still providing space for the expression of more particularist identities—supports a country’s broader peacebuilding process, creating fertile ground for peace agreements negotiated on the national, elite level to take root. And employing sport here as a key piece of the peacebuilding puzzle enables large swaths of the population to find their place in this process as agents—rather than detractors—of peace. [MW]
What do we (as peacebuilders) do about the “stickiness” of attachments to more exclusionary identities? When considering the role of sport in strategic peacebuilding, what weight should be given to the symbolic practices of a particular community—does creating space for their continued expression strengthen or weaken peacebuilding overall?
Ferguson, A. (2015, October 14). In Northern Ireland, rugby spans the sectarian divide. Reuters. Retrieved on August 17, 2023, from https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-rugby-union-world-ireland-politics/in-northern-ireland-rugby-spans-the-sectarian-divide-idUKKCN0S827N20151014
Bannon, O. (2012, May 17). Ravenhill drawing them from all sides. The Irish Times. Retrieved on August 17, 2023, from https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/ravenhill-drawing-them-from-all-sides-1.521073
Ramsay, G., & Macfarlane, C. (2019, September 18). ‘The biggest show in town’ – How rugby united a divided Ireland. CNN. Retrieved on August 17, 2023, from https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/18/sport/ulster-rugby-ireland-rory-best-darren-cave-brexit-spt-intl-gbr/index.html
AFP. (2023, March 16). Northern Irish rugby players find their voice with ‘Ireland’s Call’. The Japan Times. Retrieved on August 17, 2023, from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2023/03/16/rugby/northern-ireland-rugby-irish-call-song/
O’Donnell, A. (2023, July 26). Women’s World Cup 2023: Northern Ireland’s divided loyalties. BBC. Retrieved on August 21, 2023, from https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-66225225
Shin, H. (2018, June 18). North Koreans likely to tune in and support South Korea in World Cup, defectors say. Reuters. Retrieved on August 21, 2023, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-soccer-worldcup-kor-northkorea/north-koreans-likely-to-tune-in-and-support-south-korea-in-world-cup-defectors-say-idUSKBN1JE166
Peace Players Northern Ireland: https://peaceplayers.org/northern-ireland/
International Olympic Committee: https://olympics.com/ioc/overview
Key Words: sport, peacebuilding, Northern Ireland, Korea, rugby, soccer, football
Photo credit: Public Domain