Sport and the Troubles in Northern Ireland: A unique view of the Maze Prison’s sectarian sporting culture

Professor Alan Bairner was given access to Maze Prison’s paramilitary prisoners in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.
After a scores of discussions with both republican (IRA) and loyalist (UDA, UVF and LVF) inmates, Professor Bairner hoped to learn about the role sport had taken in shaping their beliefs and everyday lives. He has waited until now to publish his finding after allowing a respectful amount of time to pass…

A unique account of discussions aimed at exploring the role of sport in the lives of loyalist and republican prisoners in Northern Ireland in the 1990s has been published in an academic paper.

Loughborough University’s Professor Alan Bairner, of the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, was given unique access to HM Prison Maze between March 1996 and October 1999.

Before being closed in 2000, the jail in County Down housed more than 10,000 men during the course of the Troubles, including members of the Provisional IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

In 1981, the prison and its H Blocks attracted global attention when 10 inmates, including elected MP Bobby Sands, died as a result of a hunger strike – a protest over the withdrawal of their ‘political prisoner’ status.

In the mid-to-late 90s, while working at the University of Ulster, and in collaboration with the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and the Community Relations Council, Professor Bairner made more than 100 visits to talk with prisoners about the impact of sport on their lives.

He has waited until now to publicise his insights because the initial purpose of the visits was not to conduct research but to stimulate debate.

Having allowed a respectful amount of time to elapse, however, he has now written a detailed account of some of his experiences in a journal paper “‘My first victim was a hurling player…’ sport in the lives of Northern Ireland’s political prisoners” which was published in the American Behavioural Scientist in August 2016.

Bairner’s candid recollections include a description of his first meeting with the “charismatic, and reputedly ruthless, leader” Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) in the summer of 1997.

In the essay, Professor Bairner writes: “I approached my first meeting with LVF prisoners with more trepidation than I had experienced at any time since my first day in the Maze.

“The organisation had rapidly acquired a reputation for violence even in the murky world of loyalist paramilitarism where indiscriminate violence had long been commonplace”.

He continued: “Such was the aura that surrounded ‘King Rat’ and his men that I was alone amongst the participants in the community relations project to agree to talk with them.

“When I arrived for my first meeting, there was no sign of Wright, only an empty chair in the front row directly facing me.

“It did not take much to work out that this had been reserved for the leader who eventually came in and took his place, legs apart, muscles bulging, his numerous tattoos on show”.

Wright was killed by republican prisoners some several months later on 27 December 1997.

For many, like Wright, sport and politics went hand-in-hand in shaping their views and actions.

Professor Bairner also found a clear distinction between the kind of sport each group followed and played.

His paper shows that, while loyalist prisoners tended to be football fans, as were some republicans, many of the IRA men preferred Gaelic games, such as Gaelic football and hurling – sports which loyalist prisoners such as Wright regarded as a ‘foreign’.

Each group’s sporting preference was strong enough to define them, and led one LVF inmate to announce that the first person he had murdered was a hurler.

“… one prisoner, who spoke with a strong north Antrim accent, immediately mentioned hurling,” wrote Professor Bairner. “Did he have something to tell me?

“I knew that it was unlikely that he had ever played this nationalist game but also that he had grown up in that part of the six counties of Northern Ireland where it is most popular.

“With this in mind, I commented that he presumably knew a bit about hurling.

“His answer forms part of the title of this essay. ‘My first victim was a hurler’ he said.

“He then ‘justified’ the killing to his own satisfaction and the fact that the victim had played hurling was largely, although perhaps not entirely, coincidental”.

The full paper can be found here: My first victim was a hurling player…