Implications of McDaid speech studied

 

Forty eight hours after Dr James McDaid outlined his vision of the sport in the new millennium, Irish athletics officials were yesterday still unravelling the implications of the address delivered by the Minister for Sport at Stranorlar on Sunday.

McDaid, has called on Bord Luthchleas na hEireann, the National Athletics and Cultural Association and the Irish Schools Athletics Association to unite under the umbrella of a new unified administrative structure.

That's an aspiration which has been expressed at regular intervals, by two generations of Irish people. What puts this statement apart, is the rider that the Minister will not entertain applications for separate funding from 2001.

A pragmatic solution to a complex problem? Or another instance of a well-meaning politician blundering into dark, untrammelled territory? Either way, McDaid may be well advised to prepare himself for a long wait for the response he covets.

For 14 years BLE and NACA delegations have been talking about unity, each preaching the gospel of rationalisation, neither willing to sacrifice long held ideals.

For the 50 years preceding the start of those talks in 1985, Irish athletics was riven by the principles of the NACA and AAU, one a 32-county organisation, the other, restricted by the rules of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, to administering on a 26 county basis.

The merger of the two and the formation of BLE in 1967, was hailed as the final solution. In this instance, however, finality approximated to just a couple of weeks when dissident members of the NACA refused to accept the agreement and continued to operate as a separate entity.

Effectively, they are now being given a second opportunity to negotiate a better deal. But are there any guarantees that this, in turn, will not lead to a further fragmentation of the oldest of our athletics organisations?

International sport in Ireland, has never been, could never be, divorced from the realities of the Border. Indeed, many see in the history of football and athletics in particular, a microcosm of the great political divide.

The NACA is built on the tenet of one Ireland and paid for its principles with expulsion from the mainstream of international athletics in the 1930s. Throughout those years, the more idealistic of its membership, has never surrendered the hope of one day being reinstated as the supreme athletics body in the country.

With the foundation of BLE and the formation of a constituent body, the Ulster Sports Council to cater for Northern athletes who wished to pursue international careers with Ireland rather than Britain, the stigma which once attached to the AAU as a partitionist body, was gone.

Thanks to this mechanism and with the tacit approval of both the IAAF and the old Northern Ireland Athletics Association, BLE was able to circumvent the international ruling, limiting its jurisdiction to the political entity of the Republic of Ireland.

Now in an extension of that accord, the NIAAA's successor, Athletics Northern Ireland, a member of the British Athletics Federation, is an active partner in a working agreement which gives their affiliated athletes, a choice of international careers. James McIlroy, Gareth Turnbull and Dermot Donnelly, among others, have availed of this concession in recent times.

Even more significant, under the terms of an arrangement worked out some years ago, senior NACA athletes are now eligible for selection in BLE teams, a notable advance on the impasse which defeated all attempts at mediation in earlier times.

That is, at best, however, an uneasy coalition and is flawed, crucially by the fact that international competition is not available to the NACA's juvenile members.

On the face of it, the problem of incorporating the Irish Schools Association, a body with a 32-county dimension, into an umbrella organisation, ought prove less difficult. Once perceived as elitist, its remit has expanded dramatically over the years with the rise in the numbers involved in second level education.

Inevitably, however, it is the NACA factor and the intransigence of those who refuse to settle for anything less than the fulfilment of principles which have sustained honest, committed people for much of the century, which presents the bigger stumbling block.

Now, in common with the other two bodies, they are rightly apprehensive at the prospect of being bounced into an agreement, on threat of having their funding by government suspended.

In recent years, successive governments have ploughed almost £2 million into refurbishing Morton Stadium, Santry, as the national athletics stadium. Significant additional investment is still required, however.

It begs the question why, at a time when unity is again a topical issue in the sport, he has now reallocated £300,000 to building a new outdoor track at the NACA's Claremont Stadium in Navan. And it, only an hour from Dublin!