Northern Ireland

Is NI sport ready for the Brexit challenge?

Darren Cole Image copyright ©INPHO/Evan Logan
Image caption Derry City will continue to cross the border for every away match, even after Brexit

Sport may dominate our thoughts at the weekend but, when it comes to Brexit, some Northern Ireland sports organisations fear they may be forgotten.

In Londonderry, many clubs play on an all-Ireland basis, with teams travelling to Cork, Dublin or Galway in the hopes of claiming silverware.

But what impact will Brexit have on cross-border sport?

Peter McCartney, general manager of the North West Cricket Union, believes that it is a concern for many organisers.

"At the moment, players can travel with no problems at all, so anything that will impact the freedom of the players to move between different clubs and leagues, we're quite wary of any impact on that," he said.

"It's not just a cricket issue, it's golf, rugby, triathlon, horse racing, sport's very much an all-island system and, given the size of the economy it generates, we definitely would see it as high priority."

Cricket is well established in the north west, with local clubs regularly producing players who go on to represent Ireland internationally.

But compared to others, the pre-planning they can do can be hampered by a lack of funding.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rugby is one of the many sports organised on an all-island basis

"The national governing body, Cricket Ireland, is looking into it, but we're not on the same scale as the larger sporting bodies so we can't look at it in the same level of detail," said Mr McCartney.

"Our NW Warrior team play in All-Ireland competitions in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and then in a few weeks they'll be in La Manga in Spain, so we have been taking a few practical steps checking visa applications, making sure all passports are up to date, just to make sure there will be no issues coming through."

But should sport be higher up the list when it comes to post-Brexit planning?

"Definitely," said Mr McCartney.

"I can understand from the government's point of view that they're looking at the higher impact, the movement of people, tariffs etc, but certainly the knock-on effect for sport, leisure, well-being, I would think these things should be key."

Friday is game night

At the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium, Friday is match night, and with a match to win, thoughts of Brexit are far from many supporters' minds.

Derry City is the only team from Northern Ireland to play in the League of Ireland, a competition that sees players and fans travel across Ireland to compete in the "greatest league in the world".

The club's director, Andrew Cassidy, believes fans will continue to travel to both home and away fixtures, regardless of the outcome of Brexit.

For Mr Cassidy, the "best case scenario" would be for nothing to change in terms of the border.

"It's the same as any other business in the town that has cross-border workers or premises, the fact of the matter is, we just don't know," he said.

"It could affect things like signing players from the south, if there's any impact on them moving to Derry, or vice versa, but any delays at the border are the only thing that will worry fans at this point."

Image caption Players from County Down hockey team Lisnagarvey celebrate victory in the Irish men's hockey league

From its home close to the border, City of Derry RFC has forged close ties with rugby clubs in Donegal, even attracting star players from the neighbouring county.

Made up of youth, women's and senior men's teams, players and coaches travel every weekend to play matches in both the Ulster and All-Ireland leagues.

PRO Michael O'Kane's main concern is player welfare.

"If we are playing in Letterkenny (in County Donegal) or Galway, is our health insurance going to be catered for," he asked.

"At the minute, under EU regulations, we enjoy the back-up of knowing that if an injury does happen then we are covered, so if players are travelling do we need extra insurance?"

Headache

Like many sports clubs, volunteers are at the heart of City of Derry RFC and Michael O'Kane fears that changes or additional paperwork could lead to an "administrative headache" for clubs.

"Everybody has concerns because of the unknown, we really don't know what lies ahead in terms of legislation and regulations," he said.

"There is a lot of integration within the sporting community. Here in the North West the border is invisible, both physically and mentally. We have players, the likes of Conor McMenamin who also plays Ireland U19, he comes from Letterkenny so how will his status be viewed if there's a hard border, or no deal, or if they're suddenly classed as a player from another country?

"I want to make sure that rugby, and sport in general, is at the top table and secure going forward."

Despite fears around added costs and paperwork associated with Brexit, all-Ireland sport remains a source of pride for most clubs and the pinnacle of many players' career and this is unlikely to change.

When it comes to sport, the result is only certain at the final whistle and Brexit is no different.

As Andrew Cassidy said, sports fans are used to the highs and lows, and Brexit or no Brexit, they'll follow their team across any border.

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