Can sport build peace after conflict? Public attitudes in transitional Northern Ireland

David Mitchell, Ian Somerville, Owen Hargie, Victoria Simms

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Academic, policy and activist arguments for and against sport’s edifying and transformative power have been widely aired and debated (e.g. Donnelly, 2011; United Nations General Assembly, 2015). Meanwhile, an ever-growing number of empirical case studies of ‘Sport for Development and Peace’ (SDP) projects have explored numerous dimensions of this work, including participants (Collison et al, 2017), leadership (Welty Peachey and Burton, 2017), pedagogical approaches (Spaaij and Jeanes, 2013; Giulianotti, 2011), impact on relationships (Welty Peachey et al, 2015; Schulenkorf and Sugden, 2011), gender issues (Chawansky and Kipnis, 2017; Hayhurst, 2016), policy discourses (Tiessen, 2011; Hayhurst, 2009), Global North-South power relations (Giulianotti, Hognestad and Spaaij, 2016; Darnell, 2012) and more. However, public attitudes to sport and peace have received little attention.
This lacuna matters because, as Kidd (2008: 605) notes, SDP takes place in unique social settings, and ‘the benefits of sport participation and sport initiatives cannot be understood in isolation from other social and material conditions’. Accordingly, those conditions, as well as in-context constructions of ‘sport’ among a population, shape whether sport can or cannot play particular roles in a society. Yet the most popular research methods in the SDP field – qualitative, often ethnographic, approaches (as found in a review by Schulenkorf, Sherry and Rowe, 2016) – are unable to capture the broader, general attitudinal climate in which SDP seeks to make an impact. Similarly, Gift and Miner (2017) highlight the lack of quantitative public preference data on sport and sport policy.
This article shows the value of a public attitudes perspective on SDP by reporting and analysing findings from a public attitudes study on sport, peace and social inclusion in Northern Ireland, a divided society recovering from a period of violent conflict which has been site of SDP work for some decades (Hassan and Ferguson, 2019; Mitchell, Somerville and Hargie, 2016; Sugden and Bairner, 1993). First, we review the literature on sport and peace, outlining the case for sport’s potential contribution to peacebuilding. We describe the Northern Ireland context of the study and explain and justify the research methods. Then the article reports the findings of a quantitative and qualitative study that explored public attitudes to the efficacy of sport as a means of bringing divided communities together, as well as the extent of participation in sports-based peacebuilding projects.
The research found that respondents overwhelmingly viewed sport as an effective means of breaking down inter-group barriers. However, analysis of the survey responses showed that the demographic reach in terms of participants in sport-based peace projects was limited, while the qualitative data revealed diverse perceptions and experiences of sport. The findings are interpreted in the light of Northern Ireland’s prevailing political condition of transition out of conflict, and the article concludes by reiterating and elaborating the argument that social attitudes on sport and peace are an important and under-researched dimension of SDP of both policy and scholarly significance.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Sport and Social Issues
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 12 Jun 2020


  • sport
  • peacebuilding
  • Northern ireland
  • conflict
  • Sport for Development and Peace

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