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State Papers: Government tried to stop Moscow Olympics and Lions athletes

The government withdrew funding for the Olympic Council of Ireland for participating in Moscow 1980, and opposed the Lions tour to SA.

Instonians and Ireland scrumhalf Colin Patterson kicks for touch as the Lions defeat a Proteas Invitation XV 6-15 on the Lions tour of South Africa, 1980.
Instonians and Ireland scrumhalf Colin Patterson kicks for touch as the Lions defeat a Proteas Invitation XV 6-15 on the Lions tour of South Africa, 1980.
Image: INPHO/Bob Thomas

THE DEPARTMENT of Foreign Affairs tried to force the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) into boycotting the Lions tour of South Africa and the Moscow Olympic Games respectively, and withdrew support for both in efforts to stop Irish athletes from participating.

Among the papers released into the public domain under the ’30 year rule’ are files compiled by the Department of Foreign Affairs which indicate that the government had tried to stop public employees – including Ireland international Ciarán Fitzgerald – from taking part in the Lions tour by refusing to grant them the leave they needed in order to travel.

A vast number of documents detail how the government withdrew funding for the Irish squad going to the Olympic Games in Moscow after it refused to comply with a government order to boycott the games.

Despite a European Parliament resolution calling on all nine of its member states’ Olympic Committees to boycott the games – in protest at the USSR’s continued military occupation of Afghanistan, following the lead of the United States – the OCI proceeded with its plans to send its athletes, buoyed by newspaper polls showing public support for their participation.

Early in 1980, US president Jimmy Carter had sent a telegram to Taoiseach Charles Haughey imploring him to ask the OCI to boycott the games, leading the government to collate diplomatic cables sent from its various ambassadors worldwide as it decided whether to relay the ultimatum to its athletes.

The Irish ambassador in Moscow, Dr Edward Brennan, sent regular messages including clippings from Soviet stade propaganda, while Seán Ronan in Athens was asked to scope out whether Ireland should support moves from Greece that Athens take over from Moscow, and become a permanent venue for the Games.

While Greece had argued it was considered a ‘neutral’ nation – an attribute that it thought would win international approval – Ronan wrote to foreign affairs minister Brian Lenihan Sr to refute the argument, citing Greece’s membership of NATO and its pending membership of the European Economic Community as proof to its western bias.

Divided loyalties

Ireland’s position was made difficult, however, by the fact that the government was opposing the position of International Olympic Committee president Lord Killanin – an Irishman – who had tried to ensure that all member nations of the IOC would take part.

The documents outline how the government ultimately withdrew an IR£8,000 grant to the OCI – leading to many other corporate sponsors also withdrawing financial support for Ireland’s athletes – but Ireland still took part in the games after Killanin and the IOC extended emergency funding to financially challenged participant countries.

When the games ultimately went ahead – with all but one (West Germany) of the EEC nations sending teams – Brennan was the only one of the nine EEC ambassadors to remain in Moscow; the documents suggest that he, like the other eight, had tried to book annual leave so as to be absent but had already used up his annual allowance.

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Lions tour

The government had already extended its logic about the Olympic ideals by advocating an Irish boycott of the British Lions tour of South Africa, which had already been officially opposed by the other participating nations.

Protesting the South African Apartheid regime – which had already seen the country banned from all Olympic activity – the Irish government publicly acknowledged that it could not outright intervene in the operation of the tours or stop Irish players from participating.

The newly-published documents, however, revealed that Ireland had pursued more backroom ways of stopping Irish players from taking part.

For example, the government had considered blocking the participation of Ciarán Fitzgerald – then a rising star on the Irish international team, who would have needed almost three months off his army job in order to participate – by having his army bosses refuse any request for leave. As it occurred, however, Fitzgerald was not called up to the squad.

The documents showed that the government thought its case hampered by the fact that the last Lions tour to South Africa, six years earlier in 1974 was captained by Ireland’s Willie John McBride who had described the tour as a “great way to build bridges”.

Another Irish connection to the 1980 tour was the management – the team was managed by Syd Millar, a former Irish international and a future chairman of the International Rugby Board, and coached by former Munster and Ireland flanker Noel Murphy.

Press clippings collected by the government also indicated that the political success of the Lions tour would dictate whether it could ask the IRFU to cancel its own plans for a 1981 Ireland tour to South Africa; though newspaper writers felt in hindsight that the tour was a bad idea, the players – led by captain Bill Beaumont – thought the Lions tour had been a worthwhile exercise.

When the 1981 tour did go ahead – including six of the Lions squad – a number of Ireland players quit their jobs when their employers refused to offer them leave to travel. Others were forced to withdraw from the squad for similar reasons.

The National Archives files referenced in this story are 2010/19/152, 2010/19/153, 2010/19/154, 2010/19/21 and 2010/19/22.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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