Fans set to attend Irish League matches after confusion over supporters attending ‘elite’ fixtures

Fans attend Coleraine-Ballymena match
A limited number of fans attended Coleraine’s match with Ballymena United on Friday night

Supporters will attend Irish Premiership matches on Saturday.

Confusion ensued after NI Executive ministers sent out conflicting messages over the issue of fans being present at ‘elite’ sporting events on Friday.

Communities Minister Caral Ni Chuilin sent a letter to sporting bodies stating that fans were not permitted to attend under new Covid-19 regulations.

Later on Friday evening First Minister Arlene Foster reiterated earlier guidance that fans could attend games.

Five games are scheduled for Saturday, with the Irish FA clarifying that limited numbers of spectators will be permitted to attend games with ground capacities having been determined by the local safety authority.

The IFA issued a statement on Saturday morning welcoming the fact that fans “will still be admitted at elite sporting events which are allowed under the regulations”.

“The football industry in Northern Ireland, from governing body and NIFL level to right through the pyramid, has worked tirelessly to ensure protocols are in place for the safe return of fans at games.

“We have proven, just last week when we had 600 impeccably behaved supporters at our Uefa Nations League game against Austria, and at the Irish Cup final in July, that games with fans can take place safely at the National Stadium at Windsor Park and we know our clubs in the NIFL have similarly been engaging with fans to do likewise.”

Subsequently, the Northern Ireland Football League put out a statement of their own welcoming the IFA’s clarification that some supporters could attend matches.

“The NI Football League has held a meeting with Premiership clubs to provide an update on the events and while there have been many frustrations of the situation we were placed in in the last 24 hours today is a day to let football do the talking,” read the statement.

“NI Football League officials will be requesting a further meeting with government officials as a matter of urgency but today we would remind all spectators to follow PHA guidance and all protocols as directed by clubs.”

The First Minister had explained to the Stormont Assembly on Tuesday that limited numbers of supporters would be able to attend elite sporting events in line with risk assessments that had already been undertaken.

Minister for Communities Carál Ní Chuilín MLA then revealed the news about supporters in a letter to leading sports bodies on Friday evening.

She said it is “necessary to stop spectators from attending sporting events and align the sector with the health regulations restricting the number of people permitted to gather for a common purpose, that figure is 15.”

She continued: “This decision is in line with the views of the chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor, who have indicated that it would be unwise for large gatherings to take place at this time.

“While I appreciate all the efforts that Governing Bodies and clubs have made to provide safe environments at recent fixtures, I do not think that given the challenges we all face that it is appropriate for those arrangements to continue.”

Hours later the First Minister tweeted: “The regulations do not ban fans from stadiums.

“The existing position is maintained, permitting a limited number to attend. Preposterous for clubs to be told anything to the contrary.”

Supporters had already arrived at the Ballycastle Road Showgrounds for the Coleraine-Ballymena United match on Friday night when news of the ban on supporters filtered through.

Coleraine chairman Colin McKendry said the club decided to let the fans remain in the Ballycastle Road venue for the game on health and safety grounds.

BBC News