Former world champion boxer Barry McGuigan has said a unique thing about the sport is that “there were no closed doors”.
“Whether you were a Protestant boxer with his coach going into a Catholic club, or vice versa, you were always welcomed with open arms,” he said.
McGuigan said he could not recall "a single altercation" in all of the times he travelled in and out of boxing clubs in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s, which he called a " very dark period in our history".
The Clones, Co Monaghan native, who is a member of the World Boxing Hall of Fame, described the sport as "one of the greatest catalysts for fostering good relationships particularly at community level".
Boxing, he said, “reflects trust, loyalty, discipline, empathy, core values that are at the heart of building strong relationships in community”.
McGuigan was speaking on Thursday at the Sport Ireland campus in Dublin's Blanchardstown at a Shared Island Dialogue on Sport.
It explored areas for enhanced cooperation on this island and was the ninth event in the Shared Island Dialogue series set up by Taoiseach Micheál Martin. This was the first event held in-person following the easing of Covid-19 curbs.
McGuigan said “boxing has always had an open arms approach to all people”.
“There’s a rich history of success from the Travelling community for example in boxing, in both the North and South of the island. Plus there are many black kids that have had outstanding success in amateur and professional boxing across Ireland.”
He said “respect for all creeds, culture, race, and ability is at the heart of what we believe in, in boxing. A shared space where you have your own values and principles, but respect for others.” It was, he said, “an inclusive sport and it is particularly good at attracting minority communities and the disabled.”
Reflecting on his personal life, he said: "I'm from a large Catholic family and I married my childhood sweetheart Sandra Mealiff from a large Protestant family. Our families ran small businesses and we were good friends and neighbours throughout our lives, as were many families along the border."
Though “mixed marriages were less common at that time,” he said, “our differing religions never cost me a thought.
“Love, respect and all the core values I mentioned earlier, penetrate all barriers and borders. This, for me, is the true meaning of a shared island.”
Minister for Sport Jack Chambers noted that 46 of the 66 sports bodies recognised by Sport Ireland were all island.
“We have a long and vibrant tradition of collaboration in sport across the island,” he said. “Our international teams in sports as diverse as rugby, cricket and hockey draw on the talent of people from all parts of this island for their success; and, our Olympic heroes come from all backgrounds, cultures and traditions, representing the full diversity of communities and traditions on the island of Ireland.”