Ice hockey finds new fans in Belfast, where the sport unites some in the divided city

Ice hockey finds new fans in Belfast, where the sport unites some in the divided city

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — A hockey rink might seem like an unlikely space to avoid conflict. But in deeply troubled Belfast, the all-conquering Giants have emerged as a surprising source of non-sectarian pride.

In a land where ice hockey is a truly foreign game, and with a roster made up largely of Canadians and Americans, the Giants have defied expectations of becoming a sporting success in the UK. But more importantly, this foreign game has allowed for the creation of a rare and welcome neutral space, one that could offer a timely template for the future in the wake of a historic election result that could reshape Northern Ireland politics.

Last week, some 2,000 people paid to attend not a game, but an awards night at the team’s home stadium, where long lines of fans waited patiently to meet and greet the players.

The Giants have won five of the last 10 trophies on offer. In the just-completed 2021-22 season, they lifted the Challenge Cup in March, the trophy for winning the Elite Hockey League regular season in April, and fell short of the “treble” earlier this month when they lost to the Cardiff Devils. in the playoff championship game, the prize being the third and final league cup.

“I didn’t play sports,” said Craig Kane, who went on to explain how he nonetheless became an instant fan after his wife, Michele, “dragged” him to a game. “It grabbed me because it was something completely new. It was fast, it was violent, it was entertaining,” he said from the packed lobby of the SSE Arena. “It was everything. And it was a family. There was no bitterness.”

The political background

In this corner of the United Kingdom, bitterly divided for so long between predominantly Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestant unionists, the nationalist party Sinn Féin, which supports unification with the Republic of Ireland, became the most popular party last weekend. in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time since the partition that officially divided Ireland in two in 1921.

But while Sinn Féin’s success is significant, Irish reunification is not going to happen overnight, or even in the near future, thanks in part to Brexit, the province’s complex power-sharing rules and the emergence of a growing number of people who identify as neither unionist nor nationalist.

That is evident in the success of a party called Alianza, which made the biggest gains in the elections with a neutral platform that eschews any sectarian identification. The party doubled down on its 2017 performance to finish third, behind Sinn Féin and the unionist Ulster Democratic Party (DUP), a dominant force for decades that now appears to be in decline.

“I don’t think unionism can go forward,” said Peter McLoughlin, a fellow at the George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace at Queen’s University. “He’s trying to go back and he doesn’t know how to go forward.”

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