An end to the all-male club is desirable, but must be voluntary
Published 06/04/2014 | 02:30
In the days when she was regarded as a radical political voice, Bernadette Devlin (later to become McAliskey) used to say: "There'll be no riotin' in the golf clubs!"
Bernadette's prediction was that there would be no revolutionary movements among the genteel middle classes moving with tranquility between the bunkers. Even in Northern Ireland, riotin' was never going to happen around the 19th hole.
She was right for her time, but it seems that a certain kind of revolution has now caught up with golf links – and with swimming locations such as the Forty Foot pool in Sandycove, Co Dublin.
Once the preserve of male swimmers only – as a "gentlemen's bathing place" – it is now to be open to all.
This prompts the question, will Portmarnock Golf Club be next? How long can such all-male bastions defy the implementation of gender equality?
In Scotland, where golf originated, the famed Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews is preparing to put women golfers on a par with the menfolk for the first time since about 1754.
There will be a vote on whether to open the links to women on September 18, which happens to be the same day as the Scottish independence referendum.
Does this show a welcome advance for equality and progress? Yes, but with one caveat: there is an important difference between equal opportunity and access to jobs and the right to private choices in social life.
It is fundamentally erroneous to compare legislation for equal pay, or the right of women to advance in business, politics or academia, to purely recreational pursuits such as golf or swimming.
It's an abiding principle of a free democracy that a private citizen is permitted to congregate with whosoever he or she chooses in private or recreational life. Thus, while it may be desirable for a golf club or a swimming pool to be open to both sexes equally, it would be a breach of civil rights to enforce any such coercive equality policy.
I was appalled, for example, that Minister Leo Varadkar attended an Irish-American dinner party in Savannah, Georgia, for St Patrick's Day and proceeded to reprimand his hosts about this being an all-male occasion.
Mr Varadkar should have been taken by the scruff of the neck and given a tutorial on the difference between private life and public policy.
If I want to form a club with the exclusive membership of Dublin-born women with purple hair, it is entirely my right to do so, and entirely my right to exclude Cork-born women with green hair – or anyone else I choose.
Only a dictatorship tells its citizens who they may associate with. And Mr Varadkar was acting like a dictator in lecturing the menfolk of Savannah, Georgia, on who they may or may not have at a dinner party.
Granted, politicians will do anything for a cheap vote, but they are careful not to step on more perilous territory.
No Irish politician has yet seen fit to reprove the Saudi Arabians for their all-male public and political regulations, though that would be an entirely appropriate thing to do, since discriminating against women in jobs, politics, business and even driving a car is both unequal and deplorable.
But then the Saudis represent real power and huge amounts of money, and no politician would dare scold them.
Where a recreational facility is virtually unique, such as the Forty Foot, there is a civil case for prohibiting restrictions such as all-male bathing. But where any club or recreation is one among many, there is not.
I belong to a London club, the Reform (co-founder Daniel O'Connell), which admits both male and female members equally, although a person still has to be put up for membership and accepted through committee endorsement.
It is widely agreed by club veterans that including women as members has improved and enhanced the ambiance, and there are more club events dealing with the arts, culture and literature since women were admitted as full members in 1981.
Another well-established London club, the Garrick, does not admit women as members, despite some campaigning to change the rules. Yet each time it has been put to the vote, the proposition has been rejected by the club's members.
Is this misogyny? Possibly. A friend of mine who is a member of a men-only club says: "I voted against admitting women because there are times when I just want to relax at the club in male company. And actually, I don't want X coming up to me at the bar flashing her tits."
This may be a misogynistic comment (though the lady in question does indeed tend to wear many decollete ensembles) but he is entitled to spend his time in London as he pleases, and if that is talking cricket interminably with the chaps, that is his choice in a free society.
Mr Varadkar, or anyone of that ilk, is not entitled to upbraid him for that free choice, although they may freely disapprove.
Making recreational or social activities accessible to all is desirable, but should always be voluntary. It is not the same as access to jobs or professional positions.
Mind you, Bernadette Devlin's analysis has remained prescient in this sense: the golf clubs, and many other clubs, have remained incorrigibly middle class, and whatever happens, you'll be a whole lot less likely to meet a member of the Travelling community at the tee than a lady golfer.