By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
An international gymnastics body has suggested that three gymnasts from Northern Ireland change their Irish registration in order to compete at the Commonwealth Games in July.
It comes after politicians north and south of the Border criticised the decision not to let Olympic gymnast Rhys McClenaghan defend his title at the Commonwealth Games as a “disgrace” and contrary to the Good Friday Agreement.
The 22-year-old and his two Northern Ireland teammates have been told they are ineligible to compete in the event this summer because they routinely represent Ireland in competitions overseen by the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG), the sport’s international ruling body.
Last year, McClenaghan represented Ireland in the men’s pommel horse final at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
McClenaghan won gold while representing Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
In a statement to the PA news agency on Friday, the FIG said it had “received a letter from the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) on May 16, requesting personal invitations for three gymnasts – Rhys McClenaghan, Ewan McAteer and Eamon Montgomery – to allow them to compete at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham”.
It added: “The request to allow these gymnasts who currently hold an FIG licence for Ireland (IRL) to compete for Northern Ireland at the 2022 Commonwealth Games was discussed by the FIG Executive Committee during its meeting on May 25.
“After deliberation, the Executive Committee rejected this request.
“The main rationale for this decision is a violation of the FIG Statutes and rules: gymnasts taking part in any international competition sanctioned by the FIG must have a valid FIG licence of the national federation they represent.
“In 2017, the FIG had already informed Gymnastics Ireland, along with British Gymnastics, in writing, that gymnasts and judges under the IRL national federation registration with the FIG were not eligible for the Commonwealth Games.
“The FIG realises the challenges this situation brings for all stakeholders and suggested the following options: The first option would be to remove the competition from the FIG calendar of registered competitions, at the request of the CGF.
Earlier today I was informed that the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) will not be allowing myself and my team mates to compete at the Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland. pic.twitter.com/E8FndrY9Xv
— Rhys Mcclenaghan (@McClenaghanRhys) May 26, 2022
“The second option would be for the athletes to change their FIG licence nationality registration.
“The FIG awaits an official decision on the options suggested.”
Politicians have been criticising the decision as contrary to the Good Friday Agreement, which enshrines the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland to identify as British, as Irish, or as both.
The 1998 peace treaty gives citizens the right to hold a British passport, an Irish passport, or both a British and an Irish passport.
Earlier on Friday, Northern Ireland’s communities minister Deirdre Hargey criticised the decision by the FIG, and said she had written to the body to seek an immediate overturning of the decision.
Ms Hargey said: “The decision taken by the International Gymnastics Federation to exclude our athletes Eamon Montgomery, Ewan McAteer and Rhys McClenaghan from the Commonwealth Games is a disgrace.
“The announcement is ill-advised and does not respect the rights of our citizens.”
The Sinn Féin MLA added: “The timing of the announcement is something that I struggle to understand given that it is so close to the start of the Games. The athletes concerned have put their lives on hold and have dedicated months, if not years, to prepare to compete at the Birmingham Games.
“The decision of the federation has totally disregarded the detrimental impact that the decision will have on the athletes, their families and on the sport of gymnastics here.
“I have contacted FIG seeking an immediate overturn of this decision.”
It comes after Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that the decision was “wrong”.
“I hope FIG will reconsider. The Good Friday Agreement provides unique status for people in Northern Ireland. It’s based on the idea that you have the right to be Irish, British or Both and be accepted as such,” the Tánaiste tweeted.
Ireland MEP Sean Kelly also said he would be writing to the FIG to ask it to reconsider its ruling.
He said: “This decision flies in the face of logic and is against the spirit of sport, ignoring rights granted under the GFA.
“Others have proudly represented Ireland at the Olympics and NI at the Commonwealth Games.”
The FIG said it would not be making further comment.