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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 15:03 GMT
North Belfast battles back
North Belfast official Eamon Christie gets through some paperwork
Eamon Christie is club PRO, coach and captain
BBC Sport Online's John Haughey takes a look at a rare good news story in North Belfast

North Belfast has not had a good press in recent months.

Images of protesters shouting obscenities at young children have been beamed around the world as North Belfast and indeed Northern Ireland appeared to descend to a new low.

But amid all the negative images, positive things are happening in the district.

One is the continued growth of North Belfast Harriers Athletic Club which despite being situated in a nationalist area, attracts members in equal measure from both sides of the community.

North Belfast Harriers have been based in Divis Street, off the Oldpark Road for the past 88 years.

Despite the recent mayhem in the nearby Ardoyne, morale in the club has rarely been higher.


Every member donated 100 plus we all helped out with the general finishing off of the building
North Belfast's Eamon Christie

That's largely through to the building of a marvellous new clubhouse which was officially opened in late October.

Quite rightly, North Belfast Harriers received 70,000 of lottery money and 50,000 from government agency, the Greater Belfast Regeneration, for the project.

But quite simply, it wouldn't have happened but the sweat of the club members who chipped in with their bare hands.

"Every member donated 100 plus we all helped out with the general finishing off of the building," says club coach, PRO and captain Eamon Christie.

Even the club's star man, 1999 Irish Cross-Country Champion John Ferrin, got out his paintbrush.

"John (Ferrin) and his uncle Eddie Delaney did all the painting," adds Christie.

"Matt Shields did all the fencing. Myself and John Weir and Tony Dalton did all the bench seating.

North Belfast had to get permission from the Northern Ireland Parades Commission to hold a race
The Parades Commission contacted the club

"John Weir fitted the kitchen. Basically we all mucked in. Dave Clarke did the landscaping," recalls Eamon.

Then there was the 22,000 raised through nights at the races, car-boot sales, sponsored runs and the like.

Also important was the donation of a plot of land where the former Cavehill & Duncairn Club used to have their premises.

"We were able to sell that on the understanding that we built a new athletic club for north Belfast," adds Christie.

As he surveys the impressive interior of the spacious new clubhouse, Eamon Christie's pride is understandable.

But the road hasn't been entirely smooth for North Belfast's runners in recent weeks.

Tension in the locality has meant regular training routes have had to be varied.

"It's very tense here at night," acknowledges Eamon.


It was just totally unbelievable what we had to do to organise a local race
Eamon Christie

"There has been for want of a better description, sectarian abuse aimed at some of the young ones which is ridiculous considering we have both catholics and protestants running for us.

"The ordinary four-fifths on the street don't know that we are cross-community. Touch wood so far it has all been verbal".

Bizarrely North Belfast Harriers have also had to correspond with the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, the body responsible for ruling on the controversial marches which dog the province every summer.

Eamon Christie describes that as a joke although it was no laughing matter to the club when they tried to organise a special race on 18 November to celebrate the opening of the new building.

"We found out that we had to go to the parades commission and get permission to actually hold a run.

"Then we had to fill in a 16-page document outlining what actual route the run was going to take.

"Who were going to be our marshalls, did we have first aid etc.

John Ferrin won the 1999 Irish Cross-Country Championship
John Ferrin is North Belfast's big name

"It was just totally unbelievable what we had to do to organise a local race," says Eamon.

After all that form-filling, running a 9K race seemed like a breeze and the day proved a great success with over 70 people taking part.

However, Eamon Christie wonders out loud whether the club will have to get permission to hold the club's main training run every Sunday when more than 20 people invariably turn out.

"Are we going to have to apply to the parades commission every week to have a run which is keeping people fit. Where is this going to stop?" wonders Eamon.

But this is a rare burst of exasperation from the wonderfully positive North Belfast official.

The club is going from strength to strength with the membership increasing in the few short weeks since the new premises were opened.

"We even have six new female members which will have some of the deceased stalwarts turning in the graves as we didn't have women members in the old days," laughs Christie.

The club must adopt a modern approach.


"We go through both catholic and protestant areas
Eamon Christie

Lottery funding means North Belfast Harriers have to be run in a responsible fashion.

The cross-community element is critical to the club.

If young members interested in joining, turn up wearing Celtic and Rangers tops they are politely told that these shirts are not acceptable within the club.

"We don't want any conflict because when we are running, we go through both catholic and protestant areas or whatever you want to call them.

"It's for their safety and the safety of others.

"We've always served both sides of the community and it means a great deal to the members.

"There's a 50-50 split in the membership and there's never any animousity.


Alan McCullough and David Brady have improved beyond all recognition this year
Eamon Christe

"And the races we have, the good name we have throughout athletics, bears fruit for North Belfast," says Eamon.

The next big challenge for the club is Saturday's Northern Ireland 10K Road Race Championship at Ormeau Park in South Belfast where North will renew their rivalry with Annadale Striders.

North Belfast's number one John Ferrin has been fighting a battle with Striders' top-man Dermot Donnelly for more than a decade.

Donnelly is only getting back to action after almost two years out through injury.

Christie reckons Donnelly's absence has affected Ferrin's motivation.

While Donnelly will be competing on Saturday, Ferrin continues to be on the sidelines although he has resumed training in the last eight weeks.

Bright future

However, the North Belfast captain is still hopeful that his club may be able to wrest the team title from their rivals at the weekend.

"Alan McCullough and David Brady have improved beyond all recognition this year and it's good that they are starting to get recognised by Northern Ireland Athletics.

"They have been sent to all the Reebok cross-country Challenges where they have acquitted themselves quite well, winning the silver in Margate and bronze in the intercounty 10K championships.

"John Weir is also getting back to fitness and we've got a couple of very promising young lads".

The future looks bright for North Belfast Harriers.

See also:

25 Nov 01 |  Northern Ireland
Turnbull second in Dungarvan
24 Nov 01 |  Northern Ireland
Donnelly on the way back
14 Aug 01 |  Northern Ireland
Physio Jones to the rescue
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