Sport: selling its integrity to highest bidder


The Olympic spirit sullied by big business

Those who know me know too that sport is not my thing. It never has been. At school I had a tacit agreement with the sports teacher that he would turn a blind eye to my absence from the school gym if I helped organise the annual sports day.

That compact was breached only once when I was ‘volunteered’ by another teacher to participate in a five-a-side GAA tournament. Let’s just say my father was astonished when arrived home with a medal. He couldn’t quite comprehend how I had managed to end up on the winning team.

Fate played a part. The four other players went on to have distinguished careers with Down. I am still somewhat red-faced to admit that through the heats, and in the final, I never once touched the ball. But I deserved my medal for effort. I tried. My God I tried.

Needless to say, I couldn’t walk for a week. I don’t know whether or not the teacher (an Armagh man) was trying to scupper the chances of my team mates. He is now a parish priest, so I doubt there was any mal-intent.

In those far off days, there was still a sense that the purest sports were those untainted by commercialism – and the GAA was the purest of the pure. Amateurism was revered and, surprisingly perhaps, still is; alhough there is continuing pressure for the governing body to yield to professionalism.

In those days too, the Olympics, the pinnacle of sporting excellence, upheld the amateur code. The games celebrated the achievements of men and women who took part purely for the competition.

In the solemn Olympic oath, athletes committed themselves to take part “in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams”. It was a world where taking part was more important than winning (unless of course you came from one of the Soviet-bloc nations).

Television changed all that. The money proved just too tempting, and one by one sports succumbed.

Boxing remains an amateur Olympic sport, but its professional incarnation is dripping in cash and gets the bulk of attention. In golf you would be hard-pressed to name the leading amateurs, but even I (who does not know one side of a golf ball from the other) would easily be able to reel off a list of the professionals’ names.

Avery Brundage, who headed the Olympic movement from the fifties through to the 1970s, refused to contemplate any whiff of professionalism around the games. Speaking in 1955 he said: “ We can only rely on the support of those who believe in the principles of fair play and sportsmanship embodied in the amateur code in our efforts to prevent the games from being used by individuals, organisations or nations for ulterior motives.”

Ulterior motives indeed.

Sport today is reaping the consequences of its decision to embrace big business, and like a male preying mantis, it is now being consumed by its mate. It is a sad and sorry sight.

This week’s revelation of corruption in world tennis might have been shocking had it not been preceded by scandals in athletics (last week we had the latest instalment), football (Fifa is now the dirtiest of four-letter words), and cycling – to name but three. Where there’s brass there’s muck.

Sporting scandals are not new. We are dealing with human beings here, and humans are frail.

But there is something truly rotten about the scale of institutional connivance in corruption: dirty deals, bribery, and drug misuse. It’s not just individuals going astray, global organisations are in the gutter.

Those charged with maintaining the integrity of their sports, and with protecting the legacy of sporting heroes, have not just been asleep on the job. They have been active participants in the destruction of confidence in their sports and the achievements of their athletes.

Money has reduced sport to the level of mere entertainment. But at least in the movies we know the stars are pretending. Sporting excellence is supposed to be about the real thing, about endurance, about humankind transcending its limitations.

There are countless arguments about the benefits professionalism has brought to sport: it has rewarded athletes, it has helped sports to grow and to reach new audiences. But with it, we have lost something special; and we have allowed a virus to enter the sporting arena. It is a virus that may be possible to contain, but now it is there we will never be rid of it. The GAA should take note.

  • A version of this column appeared in The Irish News on January 22 2016.

Rebels without applause: unionism and 1916


Stonebreakers’ yard in Kilmainham Gaol where the Easter Rising leaders were executed

It’s been some time since I read the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland”. When I was a boarder at St Colman’s College in the 1970s, there was a copy on the wall on the way to the chapel. It was not required reading, but it killed the boredom on rainy Saturday afternoons. At one point I could recite chunks of it.

Later, on a school trip to Dublin, we visited Glasnevin Cemetery and stood beside the graves of the 1916 Easter Rising leaders as awe-struck as if we were at a sacred shrine. Earlier we had been to Kilmainham Gaol where they were shot – James Connolly so badly injured he had to be tied to a chair. It was heady stuff.

Outside the college gates, the conflict of that earlier age was still being played out: the sound of bombs rumbling like thunder over the drumlins; a gun-battle in the distance, the bright lights illuminating the police fortress across the Clanrye River. 1916 seemed quite close then: the wounds still raw, the conflict unresolved, the Gordian Knot of Britain and Ireland’s tangled relationship as tight as ever.

It would be nice to think that we have moved on. It is almost 100 years since the rising. But, as this week’s row over unionist involvement in the commemorations has shown, it’s not yet history.

England’s difficulty might well have been Ireland’s opportunity; but on the fields of France Irishmen were dying, many motivated by a desire to secure Home Rule, others fighting for the opposite cause.

Ken Wilkinson of the Progressive Unionist Party said: “I would find it very difficult to participate in any event. I had relatives who were away fighting in World War One, so as far as I’m concerned, the men who took part in the Easter Rising were traitors.”

‘Traitor’ is a tough word, and the 1916 leaders certainly did not see themselves like that. But its use is a sign of how raw things still are this far into the peace process.

Reconciling unionism to 1916, and all that it represents, is made less easy by one of those coincidences of history. The grandsons of the ‘Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ have their own centenary to focus on next year.

It does not help that the Proclamation has a none-too-subtle reference to the Great War. The nod to “gallant allies in Europe” was a provocation, as was Roger Casement’s decision to hitch a ride to Banna Strand in a German submarine. As with De Valera in the Second World War, republicans then were out of step with world history.

Ever the optimist, former Belfast Lord Mayor Tom Hartley notes that many loyalists are now “engaging in history”. There is debate.

“Hopefully, we can create a template where we can deal with what I call the ‘combustible’ period of Irish history in a way that allows engagement and discourse.”

One of the first things a student of history is taught is the importance of not imposing today’s values on primary sources from the past. But it must be said that in spite of its guarantees of religious and civil liberty, and the commitment to equal rights, the Proclamation would not pass today’s inclusivity test. Britain is made to shoulder all the blame.

For all the injustices, misunderstandings and blunders of the troubled relationship of these two islands, most now recognise that Britain – and more importantly the British people (on both sides of the Irish Sea) – are very much part of the solution.

The heavy-handed militaristic language of the Proclamation is decidedly unhelpful today, in much the same way as association with the UVF tarnishes nationalist views of the Somme.

It is not beyond ingenuity to find a way of framing the events that led up the Rising, the Rising itself and the bloody aftermath, in a way that allows the involvement of both traditions and none. But it is hard to see how this is possible, other than a recognition that the wounds are still too deep to allow anything other than an honourable agreement to differ.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone”, wrote Yeats. If only.

If we must mark the Rising and the Somme, let’s do so with the cold eye of a historian rather than the romantic eyes of a republican former lord mayor, a loyalist politician, or a naïve teenage schoolboy doing what he could to get through a miserable Saturday in a boarding school.

  • This piece appeared in The Irish News on October 30 2015

The risks of swimming in a small pond


Too many graduates go into non-graduate jobs

In addition to bringing the motorcar to the masses, Henry Ford was a bit of an amateur philosopher. You could fill a book with quotes from the man who said “history is more or less bunk”, and who told customers they could have their car in any colour – as long as it was black.

Bunk or not, I think we can agree Ireland would be better off if it focused less on history and more on the lessons it teaches.

I like Ford’s observation that whenever everything seems to be going against you, it’s worth remembering that an aeroplane takes off into the wind. Stormont take note.

I once worked for a vice-chancellor who made one of Ford’s quotes his own. Professor Sir George Bain arrived at Queen’s University in 1998 with instructions to give it a kick up the backside. Queen’s suffered from the ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome.

By the time Sir George arrived, measures were already in place to deal with the debris of sectarianism. Like many institutions, its reputation had been tarnished by poor employment practices. Many readers will be familiar with the issues, so I don’t need to rehearse them again here.

Sir George’s job was to sort the place out academically. That need was hammered home by disgruntled alumni, his best academics, and by statistics comparing Queen’s performance with other civic universities – like Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle – and found it wanting.

Two things he repeated endlessly. The first was: “A good vacancy is better than a bad appointment.” Too many of Queen’s problems were caused by having the wrong people in the wrong jobs.

The second was: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

The first quote might be Bain himself. The second is classic Ford. Such was the scale of Sir George’s task that the work he began is still not finished.

Across at my alma mater, the University of Ulster, a similar task is underway. Now under new management, Ulster is grappling with the challenge of delivering higher education in a multi-campus environment. It too is trying to position itself among the UK’s research-led universities, and finds itself in a perpetual fight with Queen’s over a diminishing financial pot.

“Doing what you’ve always done,” could well be the mantra carved across the portal of the Department for Employment and Learning. It is responsible for higher education.

There’s no real appetite there for change. The department has never been much troubled by that great driver of success – a vision.

For too long HE has been used as a parking place to keep young people off the dole. Too many graduates go into non-graduate employment after they leave universities. And employers constantly complain that there are not enough people with the right skills for the job market.

Meanwhile, we have two universities fighting for the same space, delivering undergraduate degrees (often duplicated) in the traditional way – six teaching blocks of 12 weeks over three years. Many back office functions are also duplicated – HR, payroll, finance and accounts, estates and buildings, marketing and recruitment, IT.

With the autonomy they exercise through their Royal Charter status, decisions about academic provision are made without necessarily having to take a longer view about the broad educational and business needs of the society they are serving. The current row over the fate of modern languages at UU is a case in point.

So how can Northern Ireland start doing things differently? A root and branch review of higher education is needed.

Services could be rationalised and centralised. Academic provision should be refocused. We don’t need two broadly-based institutions. Queen’s should be unashamedly a world-class research intensive university, shifting its student profile to postgraduate.

We need an international institute of technology – a polytechnic in the European sense – producing scientists and engineers equipped for the modern age.

And a new approach to further and higher education – involving colleges more – could offer high quality teaching to degree level. Most undergraduate degrees could and should be delivered in two years – not three.

Such a change would make better use of the money available. It would challenge the cosy consensus and be resisted by the vested interests. All hell would break loose at the challenge to tradition.

But with globalisation, we don’t need to be swimming in a small pond any longer.

As Henry Ford once said: “We don’t want tradition, we want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on September 11 2015

Pope Francis opens fire on ‘the enemy within’



Pope Francis takes on the might of the curia


He makes an unlikely superhero. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, like a septuagenarian Clark Kent, but when he puts on his white cape he is fearless. Not yet two years into his term (reign seems an inappropriate word) Jorge Mario Bergoglio has confronted the rich and powerful.

He has taken on the Mafia, governments and dictators, condemning their excesses in no uncertain terms, and denouncing their indifference to the poor, the weak and the hungry.

But now he has taken on his most fearsome enemy yet – and the confrontation will shape the future of his papacy, and the Catholic Church.

This pope nailed his colours to the mast when he chose Francis as his papal name. It was a declaration of intent.

The rule of St Francis is simple: “To follow the teachings of our lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in his footsteps.” It was radical in the 13th century. It is a revolutionary idea today, particularly for a Church that has lost touch with its purpose and its people.

The pope has used Francis’s rule as the standard by which he measures people, leaders, institutions – and the decisions they make. Many have been found wanting – some shockingly close to the See of Peter.

Last week he turned the spotlight on one of the most entrenched, self-aggrandising and self-absorbed power blocks in the world today. And he did not miss and hit the Sistine Chapel wall.

The curia is the Catholic Church’s equivalent of the Soviet Politburo or the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. It shares with them the distinction of being dominated by conservative old men who quash non-conformity and embrace change with reluctance. Some, no doubt, still believe the Church was hasty apologising to Galileo in 1992 for insisting the earth revolved around the sun.

Since his election, the curia has been blocking the pope’s change agenda. Every time he opens a window, a cardinal jumps up to shut it again. If there are feet to be dragged, the curia will drag them.

Its most brazen move was thwarting reform at the Bishops’ Synod on the Family. Other popes might have played for time, manoeuvred behind the scenes, and tried another tack. But this pope – 78 years old – does not have time on his side, and he knows it.

Deciding attack is the best form of defence, he has laid into the curia and its wicked ways, in a speech both shocking and audacious.

The Church has not been short of critics, and it has denounced them. But when the pope joins the critics, you know something is seriously wrong.

His words were somewhat overshadowed by the shopping, partying and unbridled hedonism that marked last week’s festival of Saturnalia (the revival of an ancient Roman feast that now replaces Christmas).

It’s worth revisiting what he said.

The pope listed 15 “ailments” – enough to suggest the curia should be on life support. Perhaps the most devastating was that it was suffering from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”.

He said: “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias; in those who build walls around themselves, and become enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

“Spiritually and mentally hardened,” he accused the curia of lacking coordination and trying to thwart “the freedom of the Holy Spirit”.

The pope sees clerics who are boastful and jockeying for position: men (yes they are all men) worrying over their appearance, the colour of their vestments and their titles.

He attacks the sickness of “those who live a double life… losing contact with reality.” And he condemns the “terrorism of gossip”, and the sickness of sycophancy. Hoping for advancement, clerics “honour people who are not God”. And he talks of a Church whose leaders are indifferent to others, and who take “joy in seeing another fall”.

The curia promotes a Church of “theatrical severity and sterile pessimism”, forming a closed circle that seeks to be stronger than the Church itself, men who “insatiably try to multiply their powers”. This the pope described as “a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body”.

It had to be said: tough love and all that.

The risk for Pope Francis is that the old guard – the enemy within – will bide their time and wait for regime change. The danger for the Church is that they will succeed.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on December 30 2014

Hell hath no fury like a minister scorned


Carál Ní Chuilín: a minister under fire

For more than 16 years I worked in corporate communications. I’m used to colleagues going over the top at what they perceive to be unjust criticism in the press.

One of the main jobs of a communications director is to save colleagues from themselves. The temptation is to fire a broadside at the offending paper and journalist. Often the best response is studied indifference. There is nothing journalists hate more than being ignored.

I know of a few occasions when a communications team decides it is better to throw a colleague overboard than try and save them.

Some years ago, the boss of one major UK institution was persuaded to issue a statement attacking a one-paragraph story on a paper’s gossip page. Few people had read the offending article and fewer gave the gossip column any credence. But the statement alerted everyone to the story and it was front-page news within an hour, precipitating a chain of events that led to a dramatic fall from grace.

Regicide is not to be recommended. The communications chief did not last long either.

In my experience, it is much better to suffer the ire of the boss yourself, than let him or her carry it into the public arena. The quickest way to undermine trust and confidence is to express your inner feelings when you are angry. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

I started life as a journalist. In my first week of work experience on a Sunday paper, now defunct, I was proud of seeing my name on the front-page lead. I was even prouder the following week when I was denounced in the letters page for my scurrilous journalism.

You can imagine then the state of contentment that swept over me when I was passed a copy of a letter Northern Ireland’s Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure had sent to The Irish News about me. It followed a column in last week’s paper about my assessment of her department’s performance. You can read the offending article – click the previous post link below. You can also read her letter in full here.

For the benefit of communications directors and would-be communications directors everywhere, it is a demonstration of how not to respond to an article in the press, even when you are hurting. If you throw muck, you tend to get dirty yourself.

As a side issue, for anoraks looking for an insight into the mind of Sinn Fein, it is a great read. The letter is important not for what it says about me (and the minister certainly knows how to throw insults) – but for what it says about her and the mind-set of republicanism almost a generation after the first IRA ceasefire.

I know who I am. It really does not matter to me if the minister thinks I am a sexist, chauvinistic, middle-class, anti-republican, pompous hypocrite who hates the Irish language, culture and everything she stands for.

Because she thinks it, does not make it true.

I suspect she believes I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth because I like classical music. I happen to be the son of a working class Irish speaker, and am proud of it.

She is right of course. I do have an interest in promoting public investment in the arts.

I happen to believe culture and the arts are critical for the creation of sustainable communities. They allow us to make sense of our lives, and to express our culture and beliefs to the wider world. They make society better, in the same way that investment in other walks of life makes a positive impact on society.

There is a comic sub-plot to her letter. To throw some mud at me, she rubbishes Belfast’s bid to become European Capital of Culture. The city was the bookies’ favourite, but was knocked out in the first round. Making their decision in 2002, the judges decided Belfast was too unstable to be a viable contender.

The bid was the brainchild of Belfast City Council and her department, and it was actively supported by her own party.

The Department’s then permanent secretary was on the board, as were two Sinn Fein councillors. Her party endorsed it in the Northern Ireland Executive and on the floor of the assembly. Sinn Fein’s Lord Mayor of Belfast played a key role in the presentation in London.

The bid process was not perfect, but it was seen at the time as a milestone in developing Belfast’s cultural ambitions, and the city more than recouped the investment in profile, increased tourism and funding of infrastructure projects.

You will also note the minister’s reference to the current consultation process on Northern Ireland’s draft budget. The minister says: “I would encourage everyone to make their voices heard.” Clearly not mine.

Letter from Carál Ní Chuilín, Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Tom Collins (The Irish News, Page 19, November 25) attacked me personally, my ministerial acumen, my departmental staff, and our collective commitment to equality, excellence and economy in arts, culture and sports.

The confused scattergun approach of Mr Collins’ attack was surpassed only by the gratuitous agenda underpinning his mediocre blandness. It was, in truth, difficult to identify the precise source for his river of free-flowing banality.

However, Mr Collins seems to dislike my gender, my class, my motivations, my background, my politics, my commitment to equality, excellence and economy in public office, and most of all – my core republican values. (The electorate by whom I am proudly elected have a different perspective on all that.)

Perhaps it would have assisted readers if Mr Collins’ column had properly declared some of his own material self-interests which is also relevant background to his political, ideological and class-based criticism of my role as a Sinn Fein minister.

Mr Collins’ allegiance as a former Board Chairperson of the Ulster Orchestra is undoubtedly commendable. However, it is also materially relevant to attacking me over Executive cutbacks to DCAL’s budget caused primarily by the British Treasury’s assault on public services here.

As Chair of Imagine Belfast 2008 Mr Collins’ Board oversaw a bid by Belfast to host the European City of Culture 2008. The bid wasn’t even shortlisted but cost £1.3m of public money. His credibility for criticising DCAL over the effectiveness of public expenditure therefore requires a more detailed discussion than this space affords.

Meaningful debate about the funding, direction and delivery of future progress in arts, culture and sports, does not benefit from tolerating the type of pompous chauvinism indulged by Mr Collins.

The evidence of my commitment to excellence, equality and economy in all of DCAL’s work is upfront and unquestionable. So too is my agenda to ensure that cultural and artistic prosperity goes hand-in-hand with community participation.

The overriding priority of the power-sharing Executive (as outlined in the 2011-2015 Programme for Government) is to grow the economy and tackle inequality. Within this, DCAL is working to promote excellence and equality while tackling poverty and social exclusion. 

In referring to examples of local culture, Mr Collins mentioned the Lyric Theatre and the Ulster Orchestra. The Lyric was rebuilt with more than £10m of government funding. The Ulster Orchestra has received over £10m from DCAL in the past five years.

Mr Collins failed to mention the 2013 City of Culture in Derry, an unprecedented celebration of the arts, which continues to resonate across the North West and beyond. It received more than £12m in government funding through my department, with legacy projects continuing to be supported.

He also failed to mention DCAL’s introduction at my direction – of creative Social Clauses designed to maximise all departmental spending for added public good, such as the additional social returns built into the £110m Stadium Programme. Could that be because he hasn’t bothered even asking?

By condescendingly swotting my commitment to the Irish language, Mr Collins did a huge disservice to over 7,000 citizens who have signed up for the Linitiative to learn our native tongue. This includes many from traditionally unionist and loyalist backgrounds.

I understand the Irish arts sector is passionate and vocal, particularly in the current financial climate. I have heard these concerns since the day I took office, and I will continue to listen to the people and represent them.

I am currently engaging directly with many individuals and groups across culture, arts and sports. Such meaningful and effective engagement is a core part of my department’s current consultation process on future budgetary decisions. I would encourage everyone to make their voices heard and full details of the various ways to respond to the consultation can be found on the DCAL website: or by telephoning 028-90515081.

I am more interested in building a new society where culture, arts and sports can thrive based on excellence and equality, and I won’t be deflected by personal agendas or political attacks whatever the source.

Carál Ní Chuilín