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




BELFAST, Northern Ireland A hockey rink may seem like an unlikely place to avoid conflict. But in highly frenetic Belfast, the all-conquering Giants have emerged as a surprising source of non-sectarian pride.

In a country where ice hockey is a true foreign game, and with a roster largely filled by Canadians and Americans, the Giants have defied expectations of becoming a British sporting success. More importantly, though, this foreign game has enabled the creation of a rare and welcome neutral space that could provide a timely template for the future in the wake of a historic election result that could reshape Northern Ireland’s politics.

Last week, about 2,000 people paid to attend not a game, but an awards ceremony at the team’s home arena, where long lines of fans waited patiently for a meet-and-greet with the players.

The Giants have won five of the last ten trophies. In the just completed 2021-22 season, they won the Challenge Cup in March, the trophy for winning the regular season of the Elite Hockey Leagues in April, and narrowly missed the treble earlier this month when they lost to Cardiff Devils in the championship game of the playoffs, winning the third and final cup of the league.

I wasn’t into sports, said Craig Kane, who went on to explain how he became an instant supporter after being dragged to a game by his wife Michele. It grabbed me because it was just something completely new. It was fast, it was violent, it was entertaining, he said from the crowded 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, so long bitterly divided between predominantly Catholic nationalists and Protestant pro-British trade unionists, the nationalist party Sinn Fin, which supports unification with the Republic of Ireland, became the largest party in the North for the first time last weekend. Irish Assembly. time since the partition that officially split Ireland in two in 1921.

But while Sinn Fins’ success has been significant, Irish reunification will not happen overnight, or even in the foreseeable future, thanks in part to Brexit, the complex power-sharing rules of the provinces and the emergence of a growing number of people who identify as neither. trade unionist or nationalist.

This is evidenced by the success of a party called Alliance, which made the biggest gains in the elections with a neutral platform that avoids any sectarian identification. The party doubled its performance in 2017, finishing third, behind Sinn Fin and the unionist Democratic Ulster Party (DUP), a dominant force for decades that now appears to be in decline.

I don’t think Unionism can move forward, said Peter McLoughlin, a member of the George Mitchell Institute for Global Peace at Queens University. He’s trying to go backwards and he doesn’t know how to move forward.




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