Johnny Watterson: Seconds out as Irish boxing’s civil war flares up once more

Boxing has a place for the marginalised but the association that runs it has learned to eat its own

This week’s confluence of events, rioting in Belfast along the Springfield and Shankill roads and faction fighting in Irish boxing, all painfully exposed in an Oireachtas hearing, prompted the same question that folk singers Simon and Garfunkel asked 52 years ago.

The original 1968 song ‘Mrs Robinson’ was written for the film ‘The Graduate’ and refers to the New York Yankees player Joe DiMaggio, widely regarded as one of the best baseball players of all time.

Edgy Joe later found wider celebrity, when he married the famously misunderstood Marilyn Monroe for all of nine months. One line in the song plaintively asks 'where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?'

At the time, the slugger didn’t understand Simon meant it as a lament for times past that have vanished, for heroes that no longer occupy a space in people’s lives and who cannot be replaced. You can interpret it any way you like. But DiMaggio’s famous response was probably too locker-room literal for the author.


“What I don’t understand is why you ask where have I gone. I just did a Mr Coffee commercial, I’m a spokesman for the Bowery Savings Bank and I haven’t gone anywhere,” said DiMaggio.

In Belfast, Gerry Storey and the Holy Family Boxing Club in the north of the city earned a reputation in the most troubled days of 1970s violence as a space where Catholics and Protestants were welcome. Storey walked the streets and across the strictly drawn religious border lines of Belfast as a unifying force.

He used the violent sport of boxing as a pacifying energy. Storey taught boxing in Long Kesh during the 1981 hunger strikes to both Republican and Loyalist prisoners.

He suffered the blocked streets, the police and army checkpoints, which could be hostile. He drove the Republican Falls and Springfield roads and across the absurdly named Peaceline at Lanark Way and into the loyalist Shankill.

Storey showed leadership, conviction, selflessness and tolerance to a level of danger few can truly understand. That his late nephew Bobby was a prominent Provisional IRA figure didn’t make it any less unsafe.

What Storey understood was that boxing caters for the less privileged, the working class and underclass, Travellers, immigrants, fenians and prods. It is not judgmental.

In its big heart the sport has a place for the marginalised that’s difficult to find in general society. But the association that runs it has learned to eat its own.

In a moment of light relief this week Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne asked the floor whether we were looking at a boxing organisation that was like the FAI, to which a smiling John Treacy answered "this is not an FAI situation". The Senator could whiff the smoke of civil war. But to what extent he didn't know.

What it was, Treacy and IABA chairman Ciarán Kirwan explained, were people who were jockeying for places before an upcoming election. That resulted in a royal shafting here and there as individuals sought position to get elected to seats, on to boards or into committees.

What we took from the Oireachtas hearing was about people in power consolidating power and to do that making sure others did not have power. And if they did have power then diminish that power and take it. The High Performance Unit (HPU) was seen as having power and so a concentrated effort was made to undermine it.

One of the novel allegations made against the HPU was that it does not do enough to prevent top amateur boxers from turning professional. It was pointed out that has been the way forever and that 62 per cent of the team since the 1992 Olympics have gone professional, while 80 per cent of all boxing medallists to date have joined the professional ranks.

They also had to explain to some that 30 consecutive years in a top official post was not a strong position for an argument in favour of good governance.

Others wish to be seen aligned with the success of the Olympic and World Championship boxers, to go on the training camps around the world and to attend the Olympic Games.

Then they complain that not enough money is going to grassroots (there never is) without fully grasping that no amount of funding can recruit members as efficiently as Kellie Harrington being Kellie, or, that on their own hearth they have Katie Taylor, one of the most influential figures in the history of Irish sport.

As head of the elite boxers, Bernard Dunne has faced the most gratuitous attacks. World Champion Michael Conlan's father and coach, John, and coach Zaur Antia, a man who brought his family from Georgia to live and work among Irish boxers, have also bled a little.

For those who can remember the emasculation of Gary Keegan or Billy Walsh six years ago, this is history repeating itself, people in authority, elevating their needs above those of the sport.

After ‘Gary Time’ came ‘Billy Time’ and we’re now into ‘Bernard Time’. For those protagonists it is less ‘Mrs Robinson’ and more savagely avant garde ‘A Clockwork Orange’ even after Dunne’s team securing two Olympic medals in Tokyo.

Dolefully, it arrives after all the boxing board boot camps, the corporate governance workouts and Sport Ireland’s cattle prod conditioning.

To that backdrop, DiMaggio may represent something else entirely, a dissolving set of shared values. Where have you gone Gerry Storey?