The start of the new League of Ireland season kicks off tonight.

Every season begins with a sense of hope and sees clubs not only battle on the pitch but also engage with their local community to compete for the social good.

It was a once the much-used adage that sport and politics don’t mix. Of course, this was never the reality and, in Ireland, sportspeople and fans are increasingly embracing progressive causes.

GAA clubs and junior football clubs have long played an important and positive role within local communities. However, the start of the new League of Ireland season will see clubs not only compete on the pitch but also engage with their local community.

 Community schemes have played a key role in rising attendances in the League, with a record 41,238 attending the FAI Cup Final in October 2023, the largest crowd ever for a game between two domestic teams.

The two teams which contested that final, Dublin clubs Bohemian FC and St. Patrick’s Athletic have led the way in increased community engagement. St. Pats has established a specific community officer role, while in recent years Bohemian FC has launched a number of highly successful social projects.

The Bohs projects have spanned from fan teams playing regular fixtures in Mountjoy Prison to the recent appointment of a Head of Climate Justice and Sustainability, part of a wider move by the club to lead a local People’s Transition model of climate action which has been backed with €500,000 in state funding.

Other clubs have also launched initiatives such as Derry City FC teaming up with Lifeline Inishowen to help raise awareness of the problem of domestic abuse. In November 2023, Shamrock Rovers, in partnership with Unite and educational company Sphero, launched a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) education programme for children in the local communities surrounding the club’s stadium in Tallaght in Dublin.

 Projects focused on community integration and anti-racism have also been a key focus. Since the 2015 season, Bohs fans have raised money to sponsor a coach to take people from direct provision centres to watch games in their Dalymount Park stadium in Phibsoboro.

Bohs fan, Kevin Brannigan, who led the initiative said: “Following a great reaction from the community, the club formally decided it was an issue it wanted to get involved with by teaming up with the Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland in 2019. The club produced an away jersey with a clenched raised fist as a symbol of solidarity and 10% of the profits from that jersey were used to further fund people living in direct provision to come to games at Dalymount Park.”

Since then, Shamrock Rovers fans have also started funding the travel of people in direct provision to their home games, while other supporters of that club have become active in the anti-fascist movement Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism.

Whereas Bohs have taken a lead on some of its community activities from contacts with German clubs St. Pauli and Union Berlin, it was to Sweden and the club Malmö which Shamrock Rovers turned for inspiration in the development of their youth academies.

 Shamrock Rovers member and SIPTU Sector Organiser, Brendan O’Brien, said: “The development of greater community links has been a key aspect to the rising attendances at our club and others in the League of Ireland over recent seasons. The focus in Rovers has been on developing links with local community groups and teams so that we get more youngsters into the stadium. This has been greatly helped by the creation of an international standard youth academy and the major increase in support for the women’s team.”

He added: “At the club’s recent AGM much attention was given to the need to further our community outreach as we seek to fill a stadium, which will have a new capacity of 10,000. Achieving such crowds couldn’t even be envisaged in recent decades but it is clear that with the success on the pitch and growing community links the return of such crowds not seen at League of Ireland fixtures since the 1970s can be a reality.”

Bohs brought its stance in support of refugees further with the release of an away Jersey featuring the slogan ‘refugees welcome’ for the 2020 season, with a percentage of the proceeds donated to Amnesty International. For the 2023 season the club wore an away jersey featuring a dove of peace and the colours of the Palestinian flag, with a percentage of sale, going to Sport for Life Palestine.

 Bohs Chief Operating Officer Daniel Lambert, explained the ventures. “We’re an apolitical club so we didn’t see championing these causes as taking a political stance. We saw them as human rights issues.”

 The social concern of many in Irish sport has also extended to international issues. In January, more than 200 prominent sport stars signed an open letter calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

 The Irish Sport for Palestine group wants Ireland’s sporting federations and all relevant sporting bodies to call for an international investigation into what they see as Israel’s violation of the Olympic charter as well as and imposing sanctions.

The letter also advocates for sports clubs, spaces, fan groups and communities to sign up to become Apartheid Free Zones and boycott Israeli products.

The group includes GAA commentator Joe Brolly, former Ireland soccer manager Brian Kerr, former internationals Kevin Moran and James McClean and former Olympian David Gillick.

This article written by SIPTU Journalist, Scott Millar, originally appeared in the latest issue of Liberty Newspaper.