The organisation of sport in Northern Ireland is complicated. Each sport has at least one, and sometimes two, governing bodies. Sport Northern Ireland (SNI), the umbrella body, recognises one governing body per sport as the lead organisation for the governance, control and development of the sporting activity, but in a few cases unrecognised bodies also operate.
More complex is the fact that governing bodies may have a wider jurisdiction than Northern Ireland, covering, for example, Ulster (nine counties), Ireland (32 counties), or the UK.
Of the approximately 80 sports disciplines recognised by SNI around half are governed by all-Ireland federations or organisations, 13 by specifically Northern Irish federations, and the rest by UK federations. The sports organised on an all-Ireland basis include many of the biggest and most popular, including basketball, cricket, Gaelic games, cycling, show jumping, golf, hockey, rowing, rugby, squash, swimming, table tennis, and tennis.
What this means is that in many cases there are national teams and championships that cover both the southern and northern jurisdictions. This has led to many debates, discussions and, of course, arguments about the expression of team identities for these sports. In some cases there is no disagreement, as in Gaelic games, because all players and supporters share a common identity. But in other cases the divergent identities of players and supporters can lead to problems. Some sports have tried to get around the problem, such as the IRFU's adoption of a neutral team anthem, Ireland's Call, or Cricket Ireland's three shamrock logo But the issue of flags and songs persists, and will continue to cause frictions as long as there is no single symbolism that all can feel comfortable about.
To avoid sport-by-sport piecemeal solutions, in order to resolve this problem and to provide an agreed set of symbols for all of the sports that are organised on an all-Ireland basis, the two ministers concerned, Martin Cullen, Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism in the south, and Gregory Campbell, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure in the north, should come together and commission, in co-operation with the governing bodies themselves, a set of neutral symbols that can be used in both parts of Ireland and abroad, and to which no sportsman or woman, or supporter, would object.
Such symbols should include a single flag, a single anthem, and a single logo. None of these should contain elements that are contentious for either part of the country – no 'green, white and orange' and no 'red, white and blue'. These symbols, once agreed, should replace the use of all other symbols at all levels, and in all circumstances. Over time, the governing bodies of the specifically Northern Irish federations may come also to use the same symbols in order to avoid alienating people from one or other community, and in a spirit of compromise and bridge-building so might the GAA.
It is curious, given the extent of all-Ireland sport, that responsibility for sport was not given to a North-South Implementation Body in the Good Friday Agreement, nor even identified for co-operation between existing government departments. It is likely that the fiercely partitionist, and strangely popular, game of soccer had a large part to play in this. But it is not too late, and other areas of co-operation and implementation can be added if there is the political will.
There is no reason for both Ministers not to start to take action on this area immediately.