As someone with his finger on the pulse of global politics, I recently came across an article which managed to address, simultaneously, the international development of squash and the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, also known as Brexit, i.e. the departure not the EU.
I refer, of course, to the issue of the “Irish backstop” which is, effectively, an insurance policy meant to ensure that the land border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland remains open (as it is today) whatever the outcome of the UK and the EU’s negotiations about their relationship after Brexit.
“But what’s that got to do with squash?” I hear you say. Well, quite a lot, as it happens. Consider the following. The development of squash in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of Ulster Squash which supports the development of players through its “Player Pathway” from talent-spotting to World competition. The eagle-eyed amongst you will, of course, have spotted that the name “Ulster” actually refers to a province in the north of the island of Ireland made up of nine counties, only six of which constitute Northern Ireland. The remaining three (along with a further 23) are located in the Republic of Ireland, making a grand total of 32 on the island as a whole. Clear? Then consider this.
Ulster Squash works in partnership with Irish Squash, the governing body for the sport on the whole of the island of Ireland. Irish Squash itself is recognised by Sport Ireland, Sport Northern Ireland and the World Squash Federation. Most importantly, squash is, in the context of Irish sport, a cross-border sport along with Gaelic games (such as hurling), rugby, cricket, hockey, golf, boxing, tennis, table tennis, rowing, swimming, triathlon and, last but not least, motorcycling. For the record, there are also partitioned sports such as football (soccer to US readers), martial arts and motor-sports, all of which are governed separately north and south of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland land border.
In a cross-border sport development context it is, unsurprisingly, the border that’s causing pre-Brexit concern. In the case of squash, for example, cross-border competition is a key part of the development strategies of both Ulster Squash and Irish Squash. Currently, the border isn’t a barrier, in any practical sense, to the movement of players, coaches and supporters between venues. In fact, people can move freely between the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands within what’s known as the Common Travel Area, an informal arrangement which existed before the UK and Ireland joined the EU in 1973. So, there are no official passport checks if you’re travelling from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Dublin in the Republic of Ireland to London in mainland UK.
Following the exit of the UK from the EU, however, there is concern that the border will become a “hard” border complete with border posts, barriers and passport controls. Understandably, the potential for a “hard” border is a vital concern to business communities and farmers who have become used to the free movement of goods. But the ending of the free movement of people could also cause a problem for the operation and development of cross-border sport in Ireland.
A recent article for Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE) states: “In terms of the governance of Irish sport, it is clear that the vast majority operate on the basis of a “soft” border to ensure cross-border competition. While no border is designed specifically with sport in mind, the potential for disruption to sporting activity is enormous. Even for a sport already partitioned along what will become the UK-EU land border, the potential for disruption is clear.
“More worryingly, it is often suggested that the return of border infrastructure could lead to such equipment or the officials operating that border becoming the target of dissident republican violence.” Another reason, perhaps, for those negotiating Brexit to turn their attention to the issue of Irish squash development.
I think that letters to Michel Barnier and Boris Johnson are in order, don’t you?
Thanks to RTE, Ulster Squash, Irish Squash, Full Fact and Wikipedia.