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Haughey's pleas rejected as rugby tour to South Africa sparks outrage

Diarmuid Doyle

Published 31/12/2011 | 05:00

THERE were intense fears that Ireland's reputation internationally had been tarnished over a decision to press ahead with a rugby tour of apartheid-era South Africa.

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The Irish Rugby Football Union ignored repeated requests by Charles Haughey's government to cancel its 1981 tour of the country.

Files in the National Archives reveal increasing desperation in government circles as the IRFU held out against all attempts to get them not to travel.

Mr Haughey and his foreign minister Brian Lenihan ruled out withdrawing passports from the touring party, believing that the IRFU could be persuaded to "do the right thing".

However, the rugby authorities refused to buckle, writing to Mr Haughey in May 1981 to inform him that the tour would be going ahead.

"I can assure you that this decision was not taken lightly or irresponsibly in view of the possible political implications outlined by you,, wrote IRFU president Robert Ganley.

"However, we have a deep conviction that within our mandate of responsibility we have acted rightly as administrators of an amateur sport. We object to being made the unwilling object of political protest."

According to the files, the first government concerns were expressed in October 1980 when an official in the Department of Foreign Affairs wrote to a colleague in the sport and youth section of the Department of Education informing him that any request for grant aid by the IRFU should be refused in light of its support for sporting links with South Africa.

By November 1980, it was clear to the government that the IRFU was determined to travel. A meeting was arranged between Mr Lenihan and representatives from the IRFU.

According to minutes of the meeting, "the atmosphere throughout was relatively cordial" despite the "frankness of the exchanges".

The minister argued that apartheid still dominated South Africa and that sport and politics were closely linked there. The tour would "inevitably reflect on the country as a whole and create difficulties for the government (for example, in the sensitive area of relations with African countries such as Nigeria). In fact, the government had already received representations about the tour".

Although the IRFU argued that rugby in South Africa had become integrated in recent years, Mr Lenihan did not believe that had occurred across the board.

"At school and club level, blacks still do not have a chance to participate on equal terms. Was it not true that there wasn't a single club in the Transvaal region which accepted blacks?"

He appealed to the IRFU "as practical men to consider if the issue was really worth all the aggravation and controversy which it would cause".

As the tour date approached with no softening of the IRFU's position, the government began to come under severe pressure at home and abroad.

Letters from members of the public were overwhelmingly against the tour, while Irish businesses operating abroad worried about the effect on trade if the tour went ahead.

Foreign diplomats, particularly from Africa, were also expressing concern, and a message outlining the government's opposition to the tour was sent to the authorities in Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique.

Meanwhile, the proposed tour was threatening Ireland's position at future sports events. The Irish Embassy in Nigeria sent a telex to Dublin containing a statement from the president of the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa .

In it he condemned the tour and said Africa would "reserve the right to reconsider her participation in all sporting events in which these supporters of and collaborators with racist South Africa are also taking part".

The IRFU touring party, including such prominent names as Fergus Slattery, Ollie Campbell, John Robbie and Willie Duggan, arrived in South Africa on May 12 and departed on June 8, having played seven games, losing both test matches against the host nation.

On their return, Peter Madigan, the tour manager, stated that "as far as rugby is concerned, there is no apartheid in South Africa".

His comments are contained in a review of the effects of the tour conducted by an official in the Department Of Foreign Affairs which found that Irish athletes had suffered as a result of the decision to travel.

"An Ethiopian team withdrew from an international cross-country race in Fermoy Co Cork. The government of Zimbabwe refused to allow a Greystones Rugby Club tour of Zimbabwe. Irish athletes had invitations to a number of international competitions withdrawn, allegedly because of a threatened boycott by the powerful Ethiopia team."

Irish Independent

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