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ULSTER/Bridging the divide -- with sport

The new world featherweight boxing champion, Barry McGuigan, is showing how even the toughest of sports can rise above politics in his native Ireland. McGuigan, a charismatic and eloquent sportsman, has a following among Protestants and Roman Catholics from both sides of the border. At 24, he has already shown a remarkable record of crossing the main religious and political divides.

McGuigan's family home is at Clones, in the Irish Republic. He is a Catholic, his wife Sandra, is Protestant. They now live across the border in Northern Ireland. Barry has successfully sought British citizenship, partly because the Ulster sports fans, particularly in Belfast, have taken him to their hearts. His British citizenship also enables him to legally hold the current title of British Champion.

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McGuigan is also European Champion. The pinnacle of his career so far was winning the world title on June 8 from Panama's Eusebio Pedroza, in a stirring contest in London. Over 10,000 Irish boxing fans cheered him on. Significantly, supporters from Belfast's Catholic Falls Road, and from the Protestant Shankill Road were in the same audience. So too were committed Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists. On this occasion all Irish eyes were smiling.

Mcguigan's remarkable achievement was underscored by an impressive array of congratulations. He received messages from British Secretary for Northern Ireland Douglas Hurd, from Irish Premier Garrett FitzGerald, and from US President Reagan. Mcguigan's manager, Barney Eastwood of Belfast, summed up the world champion's appeal: ``Barry is so popular, he bridges the divides. He just makes people so happy.''

Other Ulster sports personalities also bring joy and pride to a province starved of both. The new world snooker champion is Ulsterman Dennis Taylor. His skill, humor and dignity have won him friends all over Ireland, and much respect in the British Isles and beyond. The Northern Ireland soccer team, composed of Catholics and Protestants, confounded the critics by reaching the quarter-finals of the last World Cup in Spain. The Irish Rugby Football Team, also composed of Catholics and Protestants, are the current home international champions.

One cloud was cast over sport recently by the Irish National Liberation Army, a republican paramilitary group. They detonated a bomb after a Northern Ireland vs. England soccer game in Belfast and warned visiting sportsmen and supporters to stay away from the games in the future. The threat has had only a limited effect, however. Some weeks ago the British Amateur Athletics Championship went ahead in Ulster without incident, and with only a small number of withdrawals.

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