'Hate campaign' against Protestant boxers

BBC Newsline's Julian O'Neill reports.

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A mainly Protestant boxing club in Belfast has claimed it has been subjected to a decade of "chronic sectarianism" in nationalist areas.

The Sandy Row club has compiled a 57-page report outlining verbal and physical assaults.

The Department of Culture Arts and Leisure said it was aware of the complaints.

But a boxing club in a Catholic area of the city said it had not experienced bigotry.

The PSNI said they had a report of boxers from the Sandy Row club in a tournament in 2010 being subjected to verbal sectarian abuse.

They said the incident at North Queen Street in February of that year was being treated as a hate crime.

The allegations from the Sandy Row club come in the wake of Belfast boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan winning bronze medals at the London Olympics.

Sports Minister Carál Ní Chuilín has also pledged £3m towards the sport.

The assaults, allegedly from followers of the sport, not participants, took place while Sandy Row boxers were fighting in places like west Belfast in the ten years to 2010.

Club secretary Ian McSorley said: "When the young people from Sandy Row went along to boxing championships they suffered different forms of abuse, either physical or mental".

The first incident is said to have been in 2000 when the Sandy Row club was stoned leaving the County Antrim championships in Twinbrook.

"It's a very frightening experience, for anybody to take up boxing, get in the boxing ring... never mind getting abuse or stoned," said Mr McSorley.

He said in February 2010, a Chinese boxer, who was 15, had a bottle thrown at him and he was called an "Orange chink".

The teenager is reported to have said: "I was really scared and I thought we weren't getting out of there. It's put me off boxing".

Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes won bronze medals at the Olympic games

Mr McSorley claimed a lot of promising young boxers had quit the sport because of what had happened to them, and the problem had affected other clubs from Protestant areas.

"Different boxing clubs have sent us letters, came and visited us from all parts of Belfast and said that this shouldn't take place in the sport, especially when these young people are at a formative age," he said.

He said the club had regularly complained to the boxing authorities, including the regulatory body, the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA). However, it is not currently affiliated to this grouping.

The club has put forward an eight-point plan to combat the problem including holding tournaments in neutral venues and wearing of neutral colours during events.

Mr McSorley denied the club was going public on the alleged assaults because of the money pledged by the sports minister.

"It's nothing to do with the money. The issues are all in the report. It took some time to compile the report. It lets everybody see what has happened," he said.

'Inequality'

But Gerard McCafferty, a coach with St John Bosco Boxing Club in west Belfast - where Michael Conlan trains - said it was the first time he had heard of such incidents.

"I've been involved in boxing for over 30 years, as a boxer and as a coach. I've never, ever experienced any type of religious bigotry at all," he said.

"Growing up on the Falls Road, boxing was the only way that, basically, you got a chance to mix with people from the opposite religion. We were brought together on teams.

"It was a great ice breaker, a great way to meet people from the Protestant background," he said.

"If it has happened, I sympathise with Sandy Row boxing club. I have never experienced anything like that there."

He said the money pledged by the minister had "united us all, we're all hoping to benefit from this".

A spokesperson for the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure said: "The minister is aware of the complaints by Sandy Row ABC and has tasked officials to take the matter forward as part of the development of a boxing strategy for the north of Ireland.

"This includes promoting inclusivity and addressing any issues of inequality."

The Irish Amateur Boxing Association has said it is investigating the allegations.

"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," the body said in a statement.

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