Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Biting Back: Northern Ireland sport defied Margaret Thatcher

Telegraph Sport: where the debate starts

Indians look at the sand sculpture of former Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made by Sudarshan Pattnaik, as a mark of homage, at the golden beach of Puri, about 67 kilometers (42 miles) away from the southeastern Indian temple city Bhubaneswar, India, India, Tuesday, 09 April 2013. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)
Indians look at the sand sculpture of former Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made by Sudarshan Pattnaik, as a mark of homage, at the golden beach of Puri, about 67 kilometers (42 miles) away from the southeastern Indian temple city Bhubaneswar, India, India, Tuesday, 09 April 2013. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

No public figure in my lifetime has divided opinion quite like Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

Even on the subject of the departed lady's attitude to sport, her greatest advocates on other fronts part company. To Maggie, sport was frivolous, an irrelevance, a waste of valuable thinking time.

A story is told of how on an early Prime Ministerial visit here, circa 1980, she paid particular attention to the sporting landscape as golf centre, followed leisure centre, football playing fields, rugby, gaelic, hockey and cricket grounds.

"We're spending too much money here," Maggie sharply noted to the Sir Humphrey sat alongside. Cue a round of funding cuts that hit sport hard. And still we continued to produce great players and world champions to make us proud in the worst of times.

Billy Bingham's World Cup heroes of 82 and 86; Barry McGuigan and Dave Boy McAuley in the boxing ring; Joey Dunlop on the roads and John Watson on the race track; great rugby men like Irwin, Anderson and Carr; Taylor and Higgins on the snooker table and many more.

Their exploits inspired new generations to take up the pursuit of sporting excellence and so it goes on. History may record Mrs T's fiscal policies dragged Britain out of the last recession. But in terms of Northern Ireland sport, it was a case of the corner shopkeeper's daughter knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Our sportsmen and women flew the flag for normality when this country was in flames.

The Iron Lady may have conquered the trade unions and Falklands and refused to blink first for the Provos, but in growing ever faster, higher, stronger, Northern Ireland sport defied her.