Monday 14 October 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Vigilance is paramount if we are to keep children safe from risks'

Independent safeguarding consultant Ian Elliott
Independent safeguarding consultant Ian Elliott

Dermot Gilleece

Listening to his earnest delivery on radio, it was hard to imagine this as the same person I had met as a carefree young golfer more than half a century ago. Mind you, the circumstances were very different.

Where Ian Elliott, as an independent safeguarding consultant, was discussing allegations of child abuse in Scouting Ireland, I remembered him from Portmarnock GC in January 1966. That was when Christy O'Connor, no less, described him as "a champion in the making".

They had just completed a match involving Leinster's boys against the province's leading professionals, and O'Connor had to sink a four-footer on the final green to beat the 18-year-old from Delgany. Whereupon Himself declared: "This lad is a tremendous prospect . . . he has just the right temperament."

As it happened, the right temperament found full expression away from the fairways of the various golf clubs he graced with his talent. Born in Mount Merrion on the south side of Dublin, Elliott learned the game under his father's guidance at Delgany GC and was later a member of Belvoir Park, Royal Portrush and Rathmore, before joining Portstewart, where he now plays off 12 handicap.

He was the reigning Leinster Boys and Connacht Boys champion when going up against O'Connor. And Portmarnock became a second home when, for the princely subscription of £10 per year, he was granted student membership there while attending Dublin University - "for that modest sum, you had full use of the facilities, which was magical."

Against this background, why didn't he go on and make millions for himself as a tournament professional, rather than take on the inevitable grief associated with child protection?

"Wow! You're going back a long way," he responds. "I have lovely memories of that match with Christy, who was very gracious to me. I considered it a wonderful privilege and an incredible thrill to compete against such a great player. My parents were anxious that I should get a degree and if I still wanted to turn pro after that, they would support me. But things in golf were very different back then. For Irish players, only those at the top like Christy were making serious money."

So, armed with a BA degree from Trinity in 1970, he chose a very different path in life. Further studies led to an MSc in applied social studies at the University of Ulster six years later. In the meantime, he had met his Co Antrim wife, Valerie, and settled in the North, while remaining active in championship golf as an amateur.

Elliott has been involved in the field of child protection for more than 40 years and has held the post of chief executive for the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in this country since its inception in 2007. Prior to that, he worked in the Social Services Inspectorate in Northern Ireland as their leading adviser on child protection.

Along the way, he learned to "appreciate the gifts given to me, apart from having the opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful people in golf". Among them was Ricky Elliott, who is prospering as bagman to American three-time Major winner Brooks Koepka. "He's no relation, but I got to know Ricky, his brother Peter and their father, Pat, from living opposite them in Portrush," he explains.

Ian Elliott's interprovincial debut for Leinster came at Killarney in 1969 when he played foursomes with Noel Fogarty. And he went on to represent Ulster from 1974 until 1986. He played a combined 83 matches for both provinces, winning 40 of them and halving five.

This led to Ireland calls from 1975-78, involving the Home Internationals, the European Championship at Killarney and the Quadrangulars at Deauville. All of which delivered a record of eight wins and two halves from 18 matches. "I don't play as much now as I once did, but I still enjoy the game," he says. "The appeal of the fairways remains strong."

Given the nature of his work, I ask, does golf represent a safe environment, with so many boys and girls involved at junior level. "I think it does," Elliott replies. "In society these days, everyone is more aware of the risks that exist for children."

Then he warns: "People who prey on children are present in golf clubs, just as they are present in the church or in youth organisations. They're everywhere, and golf has got to be aware of that. It's a great activity, a great sport, but it has a responsibility to organise itself so as to ensure that all young people are safe. Fortunately, I think that's happening."

Had he any personal knowledge of child abuse in golf? "No," he replies, "but we can't be complacent. I've offered help to golf clubs and I've worked with others, looking at their policies and procedures, and introducing changes where appropriate. The Confederation of Golf in Ireland have excellent policies and procedures in place and it's up to individual clubs to ensure that they comply with them. Remember that risks are present in all areas of society and vigilance is paramount if we're to keep children safe."

He feels that it isn't necessarily a good idea for youngsters to play golf exclusively, unless they happen to be especially talented. Their horizons could be broadened by adding a team game to their sporting activities. "Having said that, the great thing about golf is that it can be a game for your whole life, if you remain reasonably healthy."

Meanwhile, a further look at that modest little match Elliott was involved in on a winter's day 53 years ago brings sharply into focus the changed attitudes among professionals. It seems that while becoming more prosperous, golf's elite are giving less back to emerging players, which is especially regrettable at a time when they themselves received so much, before moving on from the amateur game.

Apart from O'Connor, who would capture the Carrolls International with an eagle-birdie-eagle finish at Royal Dublin seven months later, the line-up of 10 professionals included such names as Harry Bradshaw, Christy Greene, Jimmy Kinsella, Joe Craddock and Nicky Lynch.

Their young opponents (in receipt of an additional handicap allowance, incidentally, ranging down from six strokes), included Co Louth's Frank Gannon, who halved with Kinsella, and 16-year-old John O'Leary, who beat Rathfarnham professional George Browne by two holes. Particularly significant when looking at their present-day counterparts is that few, if any, of those professionals would have owed a debt to amateur ranks.

For Elliott, the occasion was memorable as his first experience of playing against a professional. And the overall result was an equitable 4-4, with two matches halved, prompting the suspicion that fragile young hearts were treated with appropriate gentleness.

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