The politics of politics and sport

One of the perverse consequences of the internet is that contributions placed on it are simultaneously ephemeral and timeless. You can post something topical and have it superseded in hours or forgotten about because it was placed onto the web just as the target audience was going to sleep. On the other hand, the magic of Google means that it can take on a whole new life months after the event.

And so it was that my post on the proposal to merge Waterford City and County, and my view that it was a product of malign intent emanating from the polity that is Kilkenny, came back at me when I thought it was so much virtual fish-and-chip wrapping. There’s a lot of (ahem) disagreement on that thread about what I said, so rather than engage in a slanging match I thought I’d address a few of the objections here where I can control the narrative be a bit more considered in my reaction. Remember Niall, this is for the ages.

Let’s start with the title, “They hate us, they really hate us!” This is a reference to Sally Field’s notorious Oscar-winning speech where she was misquoted (the legend is better than the truth) as saying “You like me, you really like me!” I would have thought that the jaunty exclamation mark at the end would have suggested that it wasn’t to be taken too seriously, but even Ian Noctor was quick to take up on the venomous nature of it, so I should have been less provocative. I’ll know better next time – note the bland title for this post.

It was suggested in the thread that the post was ‘gutter journalism’. This is gratuitously offensive. Calling someone a journalist! That’s below the belt, it really is. Seriously, it’s an ad hominem attack and it’s best to ignore those, so I will.

Let’s get into the meat of the objections. It was felt that this blog was an inappropriate venue for such a politically-charged piece. If you feel that way please don’t read my original contribution on the subject, luxuriating as it does in the oh-so-subtle title of “Take it down from the mast, Déise traitors“. I have sympathy with this argument. I’ve tried to keep this blog lighthearted over the years, eschewing attacks on referees (eventually) and always looking on the bright side of what I sincerely consider a glorious time to be a follower of Waterford hurling. Angry rants about the thin white/blue/black/amber line between Waterford and Kilkenny are a jarring contrast to that lightheartedness. If people give up on the blog because of it, that would be completely understandable.

However, I happen to think that the abolition of the City Council is important, seeing it as an assault on my identity as a Waterford man. And it’s because of the blurring in both heart and mind between that identity expressed through the history of the city and the GAA that I think it’s impossible to keep the two separate. The essence of most of the objections on the thread is that we need to keep the shite that is politics separate from the hands-across-the-ocean splendour that is sport. Well, that’s all lovely if you don’t come from a place where sport infects the politics of the day, but the reality is that they mix on the Waterford and Kilkenny border and you can’t wish it away.

I’ll get back to why I think the two mix in this particular instance later on, but I’d like to stick with the general concept that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. No one specifically mentions it in the thread, but so many people view it as axiomatic and therefore doesn’t need to be mentioned. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, tripe. If you’re going to adopt a posture that says the sport and politics shouldn’t mix, then what was your position when the nations of the world rose up to boycott apartheid South Africa? Now, please don’t characterise this as a suggestion that I think that the relationship between Waterford and Kilkenny are akin to those between white and black South Africa. I’m saying that the principle that sport and politics shouldn’t be allowed mix covers both scenarios equally well. If you’re going to ask me to leave the politics at the door when it comes to discussing matters GAA, then you are allying yourself with the exact same people who said that it was inappropriate in the case of apartheid South Africa. The issue should not be “sport and politics shouldn’t mix”. It should be “we should try to keep sport and politics apart, but when they do you try and make the best of it”.

This brings us back to the Waterford-Kilkenny situation. I would love it if sport and politics didn’t mix in this case because then we could have decisions based on what is best for the people living in the areas affected rather than public policy being decided by arcane concepts of tribalism. You can argue that the decisions being taken now are not influenced by the supposed attitudes of those in Kilkenny GAA, but I argue that they are and would like to introduce into evidence the words of no less a personage than Ned Quinn. The one thing I would definitely change about my piece would have been the specific references to him. I should have said “a senior Kilkenny County Board official” and left it at that, but seeing as the anecdote I used wasn’t aggressive I thought there was no harm in mentioning his name. In retrospect, this was naive as the rest of the article was aggressive so you couldn’t split one from the other. However, it’s there now and Google will probably cache it forever so changing it now would be bad form. So it might come across as ironic that I am now going to quote Ned Quinn to demonstrate that, as far as the Kilkenny County Board are concerned, the political and the sporting are inseparable. Enda McEvoy had an article in the Sunday Tribune back in 2005 about the proposal to move the border of Waterford city into south Kilkenny. In the article, Ned Quinn explicitly expresses his opposition to the ‘land grab’ on the basis of the loss of hurling talent:

“Our success rate in inter-county hurling probably masks that. But the loss of 5,000 people would certainly have detrimental effects, especially in the longer term.”

This would be fair enough if that was the upshot of the loss of territory. But that is not what was being proposed. 5,000 people may well move into the environs of Waterford city, and they could look forward to joined-up planning decisions that would have avoided the debacle of the shopping centre in Ferrybank. There is no way they would have been forced to play their hurling for Waterford, any more than Carrickbeg being administratively in County Tipperary means that St Mollerans can no longer play in the Waterford county championship or their inter-county hurling for Waterford. But even the possibility of a diluting of the identity of Kilkenny in that area meant that matters political were influenced by matters sporting.

Wind forward eight years and that’s the reality in which the merger of Waterford City and Council finds itself in. The same thing is being done with Limerick City and Council but, as Mary Roche has noted, while there is specific provision to “establish appropriate joint arrangements with Clare County Council under local Government law to ensure the most effective discharge of functions in the areas which the Local Government Committee recommended for transfer to the new Limerick Authority”, no such provisions are established for ‘joint arrangements’ between the new Waterford authority and Kilkenny County Council. If people can think of some decent reason why these two situations are being treated differently, I’d love to hear it. But until then, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to view it through the prism of Phil Hogan’s desire to solidify the boundary between Ferrybank and south Kilkenny.

I don’t hate Kilkenny. I’ve written admiring articles in the past about them (I got called a “Cat arse licker” for this one). When it comes to anger about what is going down, I reserve most of my fury for our local politicians. Legend has it that Austin Deasy threatened to resign from the cabinet should the South-Eastern Health Board regional hospital be situated anywhere other than Ardkeen. Contrast such spunk in defence of our interests with his son, recently seen tickling Phil Hogan’s tummy in the Dáil. But the issue of the City Council is important to me. I’ve always been interested in the history of the city, an interest reinforced when my wife first clapped eyes on the place eleven years ago and was bowled over by the legacy of that history that is all around us in a way that is surely unique in these islands. Yet a large part of that legacy is being chucked in the bin, motivated by crass populism, and nobody seems to give a damn. If my cri de coeur oversteps the mark,  I’d rather by accused of that rather than be asked by future generations why I said nothing at the time.