Photo by Fatin Al-Tamimi. Flyer from the Cedar Lounge.
Last week the protesters that stood outside Tallaght stadium in support of a cultural boycott of Israel faced the oft repeated mantra that sport and politics don’t mix. David Landy looks at past Irish reactions towards the boycott of South Africa under apartheid and shows that this is not always the case.
As an Israeli team played Dundalk last Thursday, several hundred protestors stood outside the ground demanding that cultural and sporting links with Israel be cut until Israel respects the rights of Palestinians. Most of the fans on the night were supportive and there were a fair few joining the protest before heading in to watch the game. However the keyboard warriors were busy.
The protestors were attacked for stirring up trouble, they were haters, dupes of Islamofascists, wasters and pinkos. The unfairness of poor little Israel being singled out was mentioned – would the protestor demonstrate against Russian outrages at Dundalk’s next match with Zenit? And was Israel so bad really? Even it was, why blame the poor footballers. Needless to say, they repeated the old mantra of football and politics not mixing.
This kind of language has a long history in Ireland. In 1969-70, the Springboks, the all-white South African rugby team visited the UK and Ireland at the height of apartheid. They went to Britain first, and the Irish Times opined that despite ‘threats by anti-apartheid agitators’, they would have a warm welcome and a successful tour. Despite such pious hopes, the tour in the UK was marked by pitch invasions, mass arrests and noisy demonstrations.
The South Africans were due in Ireland in January 1970 and the letters pages of the Irish Times were full of supporters and opponents of the tour for months beforehand. Or rather, full of supporters, with some opponents allowed. The arguments would be familiar to any supporter of Palestine solidarity – why single out poor South Africa when Russia was far worse – why not protest communist teams? If the protestors really cared about the blacks they would give to charity rather than protesting.
What about our domestic injustices – there were more important things to protest against. Anyway apartheid was the domestic affair of South Africa and how would we like it if they interfered in our domestic affairs? Protests are useless – the Irish Times interviewed prominent South African author, Alan Paton, a supporter of ‘evolutionary’ change in South Africa, to tell us this. Some held that the protests were worse than useless, they would strengthen the hardliners in South Africa.
The protestors of the 70’s – apparently just like those who stood outside the ground in Tallaght on Wednesday – were imported agitators filled with ‘fanatical hatred’, ’hypocrites and begrudgers’, ‘pale-pink ideologists of the unwashed work-shy hippy brigade’, and unwitting dupes – though in 1970, they were dupes of the international Communist rather than Islamofascist conspiracy.
There were some actual defences of apartheid: ‘paternalism’ as one letter writer had it, ‘is a necessity at the present stage of Black African development’. Other letter writers claimed that blacks in South Africa were treated well, especially compared to the ‘barbarous tribal dictatorships’ surrounding it. Others admitted to finding apartheid distasteful, but being bad hosts to our visiting guests would be simply outrageous. After all, the poor South African rugby-players couldn’t be blamed for their country’s laws – the Irish Times rugby correspondent claimed that one of them had once played on a team with an actual black man – no joke. And as the IRFU said in an official statement, why boycott sport and not well, something else instead?
More than these intellectual gymnastics, what is notable about the letters from 1969-70 is their air of outrage. This rose to a peak after protestors demanded that the paper not report and RTE not broadcast the matches. The editor of the Irish Times joined in the outrage – such demands amounted to no more than left-wing censorship. In a democracy, people have the right to go to a match and make up their own minds. Sport and politics don’t mix.
So does nothing change? Well, in 1981, there was another rugby tour – this time the Irish team travelled to South Africa. And though the tour was called controversial, what is striking is the lack of controversy and near unanimity of the condemnation of the rugby players. The government disowned the tour, RTE refused to broadcast the matches, and about a dozen players didn’t go. While there was the occasional letter supporting the tour – such as the one berating Africans for practicing blackmail and threatening us despite all the pennies we collected for the Black Babies – the overwhelming tone of the letters was one of contempt for the rugby team who slunk out of the country to endorse South African racism.
What had changed? South Africa in 1970 was as racist as 1981. One thing that changed opinions was that despite all the bluster and outrage, thousands had marched against the rugby match in 1970 in what the Irish Times admitted was one of the largest protests of the time. The trade unions had mobilised against the Springboks, and of course international opinion had hardened against apartheid in the meantime. No longer would it be so acceptable to give lip service, condemning South Africa’s treatment of blacks while opposing sanctions on South Africa.
The tipping point against South African racism had been reached – when will that tipping point against Israeli racism happen?