Wednesday 24 May 2017

Hero Hogan puts himself on the line

Eamonn Sweeney

It's easy to be wise after the event when it comes to political gestures. These days Muhammad Ali's refusal to go to the Vietnam War is unanimously regarded as an act of great nobility and his "no Vietcong ever called me nigger" comment has taken on an almost religious stature. Ali himself has become a kind of human World Heritage Site.

It wasn't quite like that at the time. Ali came in for a lot of criticism, particularly in the American media where he was generally portrayed as a fanatical honky-hating Islamic fundamentalist. Similarly, it's difficult at this distance to imagine that anyone ever had problems with the Dunnes Stores strikers of the 1980s whose brave protest eventually led to the banning of all South African goods in this country. Yet at the time they were mistreated by gardaí, initially ignored by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and jeered in the street for being, 'nigger lovers', by the kind of people who as we speak are no doubt mourning the resignation of world-class imbecile Darren Scully.

The really meaningful political gestures tend to be the ones which aren't universally popular at the time. So it might take a few years before everyone hails former Irish rugby international Trevor Hogan as a hero for taking part in the MV Saoirse's voyage to bring aid to the long-suffering people of Gaza. But why not save time and salute him now?

Hogan enjoyed an honourable career, getting five Irish caps in the second row and making over 100 combined appearances for Munster and Leinster. When he retired due to injury at the start of this year he'd have been excused for hitting the golf course or making a tentative foray into the worlds of punditry and coaching. Instead, he joined the Freedom Flotilla which got to within 40 miles of the Gaza coast before being boarded by Israeli commandos earlier this month. He was subsequently locked up in an Israeli prison before being deported back to Ireland.

He can't have taken the decision to sail lightly. Last time the flotilla set out, commandos shot several people dead and Hogan has described the boarding of the ship as a nerve-wracking experience with his size making him a particular target for the soldiers. All the same Hogan believed his place was on the MV Saoirse because, he says, "Palestine always struck me as a tragedy. It seems that with every passing decade, every passing year, they are becoming more and more isolated . . . the quality of life is dire, it's been described by the Red Cross as a crisis of dignity."

Why is it important that sportspeople take political action? And why does it strike such a chord when, like Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the Mexico Olympics, or indeed former Dublin great David Hickey with his tireless work for the cause of Cuba, they do so? Well, for one thing it helps counter those who caricature political radicals as an odd breed of fanatics who are somehow different from the rest of us. Seeing a hard-working sports hero like Hogan on the boat helps people identify with the MV Saoirse activists. There's also the fact that it garners extra column inches for the cause and Hogan is already proving an eloquent spokesman on Gaza.

He's roped in some of his fellow sportsmen too. Rugby internationals Gordon Darcy, Shane Horgan and Jerry Flannery and Hogan's fellow Tipperary man, hurler Eoin Kelly, joined him earlier this year to make a brief but powerful video asking that people support the flotilla. Say what you like about Jerry Flannery and Eoin Kelly, but you're going to have a hard time painting them as Dublin 4 trendy liberals. The members of that mighty quartet are united by their toughness and respect for fair play. I'd suspect they admired the former in Hogan and recognised that the latter was being flouted in the case of the people of Gaza.

Maybe this could presage a new era of political consciousness among Irish sportsmen who might join some of the local protests which will undoubtedly ensue as Taoiseach Angela Merkel continues to turn the screws. But for the moment let's just admire the idealism of Trevor Hogan who put himself on the line because he presumably agrees that, in the words of the great English singer Robert Wyatt, from the song Dondestan, "Palestine's a country, or at least used to be. Fellahin, refugees, deportees similarly, need something to build on like the rest of us got."

Maith thu, Trevor.

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