User Menu

IRFU ridiculing of South Africa rich in wake of passivity on apartheid

For decades, Irish rugby body refused to boycott sporting interaction with Springboks

Anti-Apartheid demonstration in 1970 in Dublin before the international rugby match at Lansdowne Road: the IRFU has presented less a defence than an undiplomatic spear-tackling of its principal competitor South Africa.

Last Monday, in an effort to revive Ireland’s flagging bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Philip Browne, the chief executive of the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), wrote an extraordinary letter to Brett Gosper, chief executive of World Rugby. It was expected that the IRFU would challenge the recent evaluation report by the World Cup Technical Review Group which rated Ireland last in all but one of the hosting criteria, yet the manner in which they have done so is still startling.

What the IRFU presented was less a defence of what this country has to offer than an undiplomatic spear-tackling of its principal competitor. No mud was left unthrown, including allusions to the South African crime rate and an explicit post-bailout-Ireland dig at another country’s sovereign credit rating – for the record, it’s “junk”. It has certainly added a spice to Saturday’s match between Ireland and South Africa at the Aviva Stadium.

The IRFU stressed its commitment to “positive and respectful” involvement in the bidding process, but it’s hard to reconcile such sentiment with the substance of its letter.

It’s hard, too, to reconcile the hard-edged attitude taken now by the IRFU to the passivity it displayed during the decades when South Africa really did deserve the jabbing of judgmental fingers.

Public protests

Over the course of three decades – from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s – the IRFU maintained and encouraged sporting contacts with South Africa at a time when it was a focus of angry public protests,

And not just from the “pale-pink ideologists of the unwashed, workshy hippy brigade”, as one letter writer to this newspaper casually derided them in the late 1960s.

The Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement founded earlier that decade was in fact an impressive coalition of academic activists, politicians, trade unionists and others who did much to raise public consciousness of the obscenities of the apartheid regime and challenge any attempts to normalise it.

Sport did just that, though the Irish rugby authorities were frequently at pains to deny it. Whenever the spotlight turned on their sporting links with the Springboks, they clung to a progressively threadbare line that sport and politics were wholly separate spheres.

For a time, too, Irish governments indulged a similar fiction.

In principle, of course, the official government policy was unambiguously opposed to apartheid but sport presented the point at which they were unwilling to press that principle. Speaking to the Dáil in 1965, shortly before the South Africans arrived to suffer their first international defeat to Ireland, then taoiseach Seán Lemass expressed the view that the “refusal of all contacts with citizens of a country whose government practises discrimination” was not the best way to end it.

That view would change, but only gradually and over time.

Severing links

Even into the 1970s, the Irish government was abstaining on a United Nations resolution urging member states to take all necessary actions to sever links, including sporting, with South Africa.

It wasn’t that they didn’t agree with the resolution’s intent – they whole-heartedly supported far stronger anti-apartheid measures; it was that they didn’t believe they could trespass on the independence of Ireland’s voluntary sporting organisations. Nor did they wish to – these were autonomous and the government liked it that way.

And yet, the government’s position hardened all the same – and at the expense of its good relations with the IRFU. When, in 1979, Ireland’s rugby chiefs opted to press ahead with an invite to Dublin for a South African “Barbarians” side, the government intervened to thwart their plans. It simply denied the South Africans entry to the State and hoped the IRFU wouldn’t switch the fixture to Ravenhill across the Border. They didn’t.

The IRFU bullishly defended its tour plans, accused the government of double standards, of taking the 'soft option' in targeting rugby

What’s more, they never again hosted an apartheid-era South African team on Irish home soil.

Instead, the traffic flowed in the opposite direction.

The Lions toured South Africa with IRFU backing in 1980 and the following year, Ireland returned for a tour of its own.

On both occasions, the IRFU defied the wishes of a government all too aware of the wider reputational fallout, not least among those African countries with whom it was furiously building political and trade relations.

In late November 1980, six months prior to the Irish team’s scheduled departure for South Africa, the government tried one last time to waken the IRFU to wider realities.

Led by Brian Lenihan snr, the suits of the Department of Foreign Affairs met with the blazers of the IRFU for what turned out to be a dialogue of the deaf.

The IRFU bullishly defended its tour plans, accused the government of double standards, of taking the “soft option” in targeting rugby, of being ignorant of the South African “mentality” and of the great reforms that it claimed were transforming South African rugby.

Superficial reforms

None of this cut much ice with a well-briefed minister and his team, armed as they were with 10 pages of speaking notes and a briefing paper that demolished the idea that the South African Rugby Board’s “reforms” were anything other than superficial – rugby was still, the paper emphasised, “one of the least integrated sports in South Africa”.

The meeting – described by one official as “relatively cordial”, if frank – lasted 50 minutes and ended with the two sides as far apart as before.

The IRFU was not for turning and the tour went ahead as planned.

He pointedly thanked Irish sportspeople, including rugby players, for their 'wholehearted and often sacrificial support for our struggle'

If the issues involved weren’t so serious and the evil of apartheid so obvious, there would have been something almost admirable in the IRFU’s imperviousness to the public protests and political pressure.

And yet, it was not the sport’s governing body but the small number of rugby dissenters – the clubs who refused their grounds for training to visiting Springbok teams and the players who turned their backs on opportunities to travel on Irish and Lions tours – who would ultimately find themselves on the right side of history.

When, in May 1990, just months after his release from a 27-year imprisonment, Nelson Mandela came to Dublin and addressed the Dáil, he pointedly thanked Irish sportspeople, including rugby players, for their “wholehearted and often sacrificial support for our struggle”.

Everyone knew to whom he was and wasn’t referring.

The new South Africa that Mandela helped bring into being has certainly not delivered on its post-apartheid promise and it is probably not the best venue for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. But, conscious of all that has gone before, did it deserve the ridiculing it received from the IRFU this week?

Mark Duncan is a historian and founder of the InQuest Research Group