Communities come together for new tournament in Belfast

Posted By: March 23, 2022



Victims’ campaigner Raymond McCord at the pitches in Belfast where he played youth club football for Star of the Sea along with Bobby Sands. Photo: Liam McBurney.

 An inaugural football match to showcase a cross-community sports initiative will take place at Crusaders FC home ground, Seaview, in Belfast this Sunday. The first edition of what is planned as an annual tournament will feature an under-16s game between Palmerstown FC and Limestone United, a cross-community club based in north Belfast. The cup is named in commemoration of the Belfast Star of the Sea football team of 1969, whose story was featured on these pages recently.

The initiative was organized by Raymond McCord, a victim’s rights campaigner from Belfast and an advocate from cross community integration through schooling and sport. McCord was a member of the Star of the Sea youth club and a player on the club’s football team which was one of the best underage sides in Ireland prior to the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969. Several members of the team became involved in the conflict on both sides of the divide in the subsequent decade.

“This is about sport and people enjoying meeting people they’d otherwise never meet,” he says.

“When I played with Star of the Sea, there were many Catholics in Rathcoole and none of them were my enemy. The Troubles brought grief into that estate. I have asked several Stormont politicians to mention this match in Assembly before it closes down for the election. I don’t believe they take it seriously enough to see what is being done. This is going to be an annual event. We would like to see it progress into an All-Ireland competition. There are still too many people who don’t want their kids to be together in school and in sport. Yet they go to university or tech outside of that and it is integrated. And there is no trouble. So why can’t it be done at primary and secondary level?”

Old Scores, the BBC documentary made about the Star of the Sea players, will be screened after the match. The event has been sponsored by local businesses, with next year’s game scheduled to take place in Dublin. McCord is hopeful of expanding the event into a tournament format in the years ahead. The idea is to replicate the cross-community ethos which sustained the Star of the Sea youth club from its formation in the late 1950s until it closed in the 1990s. Liam Conlon, a Belfast doctor, was a founder member and a driving force behind the football team which, for a time, became one of the most successful instances of an integrated sports team in the North. Star of the Sea basketball club emanated from the youth club. They are the reigning Super league champions and are preparing to celebrate 60 years in existence. Star basketball has also persevered with a cross community policy through the decade.

Limestone United was set up eleven years ago during a period when rioting and cross-community youth violence was worsening, particularly at the flashpoints of Belfast’s interface areas. There are 60 members, some of whom have been there since the club was formed.

“We wanted to create a team that wasn’t based on ability but more so because they wanted to become friends and look at the issues that were having an impact on their lives,” explains Brian Caskey, a founder member, on the idea behind Limestone United.

“So , football was the hook without being the main factor. We approached young people from both communities to see if they would be interested in using football as a way to maybe diffuse the tensions. And they accepted this and took on a lot of risk themselves. And they went for it. It got them involved in conversations about why they were fighting. And it got people who never spent any time with each other together.”

Caskey says the club’s founders have been “humbled” by the response of its members over the years. Long-term friendships have been forged through the club. They have avoided playing in competitive leagues, instead playing against other community teams and statutory teams.

“When we started, I wouldn’t say that every session was easy. For me, having that mixture of conversation and sport is what works. It is giving the young people space and time to be together and have those frank conversations. But it is also about getting them to come up with ideas. Sometimes in my generation we think we hold all the ideas. But for me, young people come up with really good ideas and move at a faster pace than you would expect. So, I love this idea on Sunday of young people from Belfast and Dublin connecting. There are kids who are vulnerable but the majority influence the minority.”

Former Olympic boxer Paddy Barnes, former Ireland and Lions rugby player Trevor Ringland and Phil Beattie, who took gold in the Commonwealth games 400 metre hurdles are among sports personalities who are planning to attend the event. Invitations have been extended to leading political figures from both sides of the border. Kick-off is at 2pm. Several former Star of the Sea players will also attend the match and the presentation afterwards.