Thursday 22 February 2018

Rugby apartheid row led to cut in schools grants


The Irish Government vetoed grants for rugby-playing schools in the wake of the Lions tour to South Africa 30 years ago.

The Fianna Fáil government feared that making grants available to rugby would be seen as tacit state approval for South Africa's apartheid regime and damage Ireland's chances of becoming a member of the United Nations Security Council.

The newly-published state papers for 1980 reveal that senior figures within the Fianna Fáil government, including then Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Lenihan and the minister for state with responsibility for sport Jim Tunney, strongly opposed the tour and also made it known that IRFU plans to tour South Africa in 1981 would be frowned upon.

The Lions tour, which was a highly controversial one, was opposed by the Irish and British governments and also groups against sporting relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Tour manager was Syd Millar, current chairman of the IRB, and coach was Noel Murphy. The Lions lost the series 3-1 in the absence of many of the top players.

An exchange of letters between officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Education, which then housed the sports junior ministry, reveal the extent of the disapproval at the time.

The state papers also show that the Department of Foreign Affairs cited the precedent of the Irish Tug of War team being refused an annual grant of £700 in 1979 on the grounds that the sport had maintained contacts with South Africa.

The exchange began with a letter from the Department of Education to the Department of Foreign Affairs seeking its views on the question of grant aid to the IRFU to assist in the promotion of rugby at schools level.

The letter sent on July 18, 1980 stated that ordinarily the minister, Mr Tunney, would be favourably disposed to making funds available for the development of schools rugby but he was conscious of the IRFU participation in the Lions Tour of South Africa and the government's stated opposition to it.

On October 7 of that year a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs shared this view, stating that Irish participation in the Lions tour was a relevant factor in considering an IRFU application for state assistance.

This letter also said that it was the department's view that until there is clear evidence that the IRFU intends to revise its policy with regard to sporting contacts, the provision of grant aid would be interpreted as indicating that the government condoned the attitude adopted by the IRFU and as a result they felt that the grant aid should not be approved.

The papers show that relations between the government and the IRFU reached breaking point at a meeting between Union officials and Lenihan.

At this meeting, the Minister said that while there would not be any interference with an individual's right to travel, and that passports would not be withdrawn, he appealed to the IRFU, "as practical men, to consider if the proposed tour to South Africa in 1981 was really worth all the aggravation and controversy which it would cause".

However, the vice-president of the IRFU, JJ Moore, accused the Government of double standards. "Would the Government not discourage the ESB from importing coal from South Africa, or discourage fruit imports from South Africa," the minutes record him as asking.

The IRFU also felt it strange that the Government did not object to South African golfers competing in Ireland, to which the Minister replied that they came here in an individual capacity.

And in further evidence of the increasingly fraught relations between Irish rugby and the government, then Irish captain Ciarán Fitzgerald was refused leave from the army to go on the Lions tour.

Sunday Indo Sport

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport