Saturday 16 December 2017

Answering Apartheid's call

Hold the Back Page

Moss Keane, one of the players who refused to tour South Africa in 1981
Moss Keane, one of the players who refused to tour South Africa in 1981

Eamonn Sweeney

Pssst, want to hear a dirty story? Good. Because this is the sleaziest, grubbiest, nastiest tale in the history of Irish Sport, exhibit A in our hall of shame. It's the story of how in 1981 the IRFU flouted public opinion at home and abroad and supported the Apartheid system by despatching a rugby team to tour South Africa.

Why bring it up now? Well, in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela's death I noticed that Tom McGurk had tweeted that we should remember the gestures of Tony Ward and Moss Keane in refusing to tour South Africa in 1981. And indeed we should. But they weren't typical of Irish rugby and I'd hate to think that people were getting all self-congratulatory about those gestures, like Michael Martin did in the Dáil last week, and thinking they allow the sport to claim a place on the already overcrowded Mandela bandwagon.

You see, it's remarkable the lengths the IRFU were prepared to go to back in 1981 to show they were OK with the way South Africans, or to be more accurate, white South Africans, ran things in their neck of the woods. In 1984 the great Cork rock band Microdisney released an album entitled We Hate You South African Bastards. But that came three years after the IRFU decided to tour the equally ground-breaking We Love You South African Bastards.

The reviews for that one weren't quite so good. Straight away Keane, Ward and Hugo McNeill said they wouldn't be touring for moral reasons. So did their international team-mate Donal Spring who hit the nail on the head by saying, "Though I agree with the theory that sport and politics should be kept apart whenever possible, when the evil involved is so fundamental a part of society that it transcends all aspects of human life as in South Africa, one cannot hide behind a banner labelled sport, trade, tourism etc."

Several other players pulled out, though they mainly cited work reasons for doing so. Yet the majority of players were gung-ho for the tour. There was nothing routine about this tour, Ireland hadn't toured South Africa since 1961, England hadn't been there since 1972, Wales had given it a miss since 1964. Ireland would be the second-last official international team to travel to the Apartheid state (England went there in 1984). South Africa was a sporting pariah, rugby tours its only international outlet since their cricket team had been expelled from competition in 1970.

There was, in fairness, pretty widespread revulsion at the IRFU's attitude. The main political parties, the churches, the trade unions, student organisations and other sporting bodies called on them to call off the tour and 20,000 people signed a petition urging them to do so. Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Lenihan pointed out that, "This is not a sporting event. It is, whether or not the players or organisers choose to regard it as such, a political act".

Opposition was not confined to Ireland. The African National Congress and the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid condemned the tour. Archbishop of Durban Denis Hurley warned, "Be quite clear about it. Both white South Africans and the black majority of people in South Africa clearly interpret the tour as an acceptance of the policy of Apartheid".

Ebrahim Patel of the South African Rugby Union, the country's only multi-racial rugby body, said there was "shock and anger within the black community. Ireland's betrayal of the black South African people by sending a rugby team on tour will never be forgotten".

Nonetheless, the IRFU refused to countenance calling off the tour and pretended that their visit was actually some kind of Anti-Apartheid gesture. "I cannot say in any precise way what changes the tour will bring about but I believe that it will harm rather than promote Apartheid," said national coach Tom Kiernan. IRFU vice-president John Moore also believed the tour might help end Apartheid.

However, this idea of the IRFU as cunning stealth warriors against the South African system takes a bit of a blow when you consider reports at the time that the Union's officials would only appear in a TV programme about the tour if no representative of the Anti-Apartheid movement was allowed to debate with them.

Such was the opposition to the tour that, fearful that they would be prevented from travelling out of Dublin Airport by staff there, the players and management split into small groups which left the country separately and met up in England from where they continued their journey. An Irish Press editorial commented, "In one of the most inglorious exits from the country ever, the IRFU team to misrepresent Ireland against South Africa slunk out of Dublin virtually in disguise and certainly, in the eyes of most of their fellow countrymen, in disgrace." They had, said the head of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement Kader Asmal, "skulked out of the country like rats". Which is an offensive comparison. Apologies to the rat population.

Meanwhile, other Irish sportsmen were affected by the tour. Ray Flynn had to pull out of the big athletics meeting in Oslo because the Ethiopian team threatened a boycott if any Irish athletes were invited. John Treacy also opted out of a major meeting. The prestigious Grange International cross-country race saw the Ethiopians pull out en masse. Ireland's sporting name was being dragged through the mud.

Out in South Africa the team had a wonderful time, losing most of their matches, being hailed as the regime's best friends by a government minister and being described as an example to the rest of the world by the country's rugby kingpin Danie Craven. They also reportedly refused to meet an Irish citizen who had suffered through the actions of the regime and was about to be evicted from his house. But it's hard to cover everything.

They returned with tour manager Paddy Madigan describing the whole farrago as, "A great tour. We had a great reception from the South Africans . . . as far as rugby is concerned there is no Apartheid in South Africa." No doubt the separate rugby organisations for White, Black and Coloured players would have concurred with this cheery message.

So, given that Tom McGurk has already paid tribute to the refuseniks, I think it falls to me to hymn the courage of those players who, realising that the IRFU knew more about Apartheid than the ANC, hit the veldt 32 years ago and disgraced the lot of us.

Take a bow (drum-roll, opening chords of Ireland's Call): Johnny Murphy, Kevin O'Brien, Freddie McLennan, Keith Crossan, David Irwin, Alan Irwin, John Hewitt, Michael Kiernan, Terry Kennedy, Paul Dean, Ollie Campbell, Mick Quinn, John Robbie, Barry O'Connor, Robbie McGrath, Phil Orr, John Cantrell, Harry Harbison, Gerry McLoughlin, Des Fitzgerald, Brendan Foley, Jerry Holland, George Wallace, John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery, Ronan Kearney, Willie Duggan and Tony O'Leary. Less than a decade later, Apartheid was indeed no more. Maybe they should have sent them on two tours.

It's worth remembering the tour, not least because Tom McGurk is right and Tony Ward and Moss Keane did the right thing by Nelson Mandela. But you can't praise them without remembering how wrong the rest of the rugby establishment was at the time.

Actually, at the time doesn't quite cover it. Because, unless I missed it, the IRFU have never uttered a word of apology for that tour or even admitted they were wrong to undertake it. And neither have any of the players who went there. In fact, not so long ago Gerry McLoughlin, who became a Labour councillor and Mayor of Limerick, was still defending his journey on the grounds that the South Africans were apparently making progress at the time. Progress invisible to black South Africans, obviously, but visible to Irish tourists.

Is an apology too much to expect from the IRFU? Yeah, I'd say so.

In 1970, South Africa were royally welcomed in Limerick with Labour Party TD Steve Coughlan leading the way. Jim Kemmy, who led the local protests against the tour, was so disgusted with Coughlan that he left Labour and became an Independent TD. Kemmy is Limerick's Nelson Mandela in that everyone loves and agrees with him now that he's safely dead.

Meanwhile, Eamon Gilmore beat the Mandela drum with gusto last week though he has no problem with the party fielding a councillor who not only gave succour to the Apartheid regime but doesn't seem one bit sorry. I wonder what the secretary of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement back at the time of the tour thinks of that.

Joan Burton her name was. Whatever happened to her?

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport