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IRFU urged to discourage Ulster stars from touring South Africa

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 25/08/2016

Willie John McBride (centre) during the British Lions tour to South Africa in 1974
Willie John McBride (centre) during the British Lions tour to South Africa in 1974

Irish rugby officials came under intense Government pressure to stop players and officials taking part in matches against South Africa at the height of the apartheid era.

Newly-released files reveal how ministers lobbied the IRFU's Ulster Branch over a controversial 1989 tour.

The Government feared Ulstermen Willie John McBride and Steve Smith, part of the 1989 Lions touring party, would be invited to have involvement in two all-star games - causing diplomatic embarrassment.

The controversy is detailed in a file released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.

Apartheid was a system of racial segregation enforced through government legislation, effectively giving privileges to white South Africans.

It led to trade sanctions and a ban on sports tours during the 1970s and 1980s.

A number of unofficial, so-called rebel tours and exhibition matches did take place. In 1989, to mark the centenary of the South African Rugby Board, two tests between a World XV and South Africa were arranged. It caused severe concerns for the Government, which was anxious that no UK players take part.

The Government had signed up to the Gleneagles Agreement, which discouraged sporting contact with South Africa.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was warned of the issue in a memo dated August 1, 1989.

It stated that the four "home" rugby unions - England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - would receive invitations to pass on to individual players.

One memo suggested two from Northern Ireland could be involved. McBride was mentioned as a possible team manager, while Smith, who had made his debut the previous year, had reportedly been approached.

The PM was advised: "It might help to re-emphasise the Government's own position if we were to write to the governing bodies and ask them to pass the letters on to the players concerned."

A letter from Brian Mawhinney, an official with the Northern Ireland Office, sent to JS Gardiner, the president of the IRFU's Ulster Branch, set out the Government's views.

He wrote: "I would ask that you make these views known to the IRFU and request that they send a copy of this letter to each player or official from Northern Ireland to whom an invitation may have been addressed.

"I would also hope that the Ulster Branch will discourage any of its Northern Ireland members from taking part in the proposed tour."

Similar letters were sent to the English, Scottish and Welsh rugby unions. The case of Northern Ireland players had caused particular difficulty, since rugby was administered centrally by the Dublin-based IRFU.

A memo from Environment Secretary Chris Patten set out the dilemma.

It states: "In Ireland, rugby football is administered centrally by the Irish Rugby Football Union whose headquarters is in Dublin, though we do have a branch of the Governing Body of the sport in Northern Ireland - the Ulster Branch of the IRFU.

"It was important that the Government's view was made clear to those responsible for administering the game in Northern Ireland, particularly in view of the speculation surrounding the position of Mr WJ McBride as possible team manager, and that of Mr Stephen Smith, a member of the British Lions who has apparently also been approached."

No Irish or Scottish players or staff were involved in the two games, but some from England and Wales did take part.

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