Belfast Telegraph

North West 200 ban call: We shouldn't rush to drown out views we don't share

By Paul Connolly

Columnist Fionola Meredith opened a proverbial can of worms this week when she vigorously suggested motorcycle road-racing should be banned in Northern Ireland.

She spoke out amid the mounting death and injury toll of the North West 200 and also associated at times with other road races.

Fionola's viewpoint wasn't particularly controversial, or so you'd have thought. She did express it in her usual forthright terms, which, of course, is her right.

Tragically, this year's race saw the death of English rider Simon Andrews, which put the spotlight on Fionola's column for some people.

Personally, I rather disagree with Fionola on banning road-racing. I cherish the great Northern Irish tradition and admire the riders' courage and skill.

The images of Joey Dunlop, the Armoy Armada and all those other heroes will live on in our psyche for ever.

And there's something beguilingly modest about our riders: there's never the brashness and self-promotion of, say, football, boxing or snooker. There are risks, of course, but they are well-managed.

That said, the death toll has been close to horrific. At least 16 riders have died on that famous near-triangular street circuit between Portstewart, Coleraine and Portrush, which is one of the fastest in the world, with speeds in excess of 200mph.

There are probably around a dozen countries, almost all in Europe, with serious organised road-racing; pretty much everywhere else, the racing takes place on tracks.

Fionola argued that road-racing is simply too dangerous and the glamour is misplaced. Hardly radical stuff – road-racing was once common internationally – but it led to a fairly ferocious reaction.

There were a few supportive voices, but most were completely and implacably opposed, much of it in highly emotive language.

"I have never read such an opinionated, uninformed and utterly ridiculous article in my life," was one not-untypical comment.

Another wrote: "I think we should ban news articles that are so badly written they look like essays I used to do on the bus to school."

A more measured commentator asked: "Yes, there are injuries and sometimes fatalities. But would it not be true to say that in the equestrian sports there are more?"

There was also talk of a boycott of the Belfast Telegraph for being the vehicle that dared to carry such heretical views.

Fionola was wheeled out on radio talk shows to justify herself, even being put up against famous road-racers to defend herself.

The thing is, her views are hardly radical. Some of her points seemed a bit low, but the overall thrust was entirely logical, if emotively couched (which, admittedly, did annoy many people).

Why she was pilloried for promoting what is deemed common sense elsewhere shows a certain, well, irrationality.

Yes, her language was strong. Yes, it came after a rider was critically injured. Yes, emotions were high.

But surely that is the correct time to have a debate? Is the white heat of the moment not the time to highlight the tragic toll?

And is the chance of achieving change not best immediately after tragedies, when people can harness emotional energy and urgency?

The attacks on Fionola were all strident; many were reasoned, some bordered on the irrational.

But she's a columnist who puts her views into the public domain and she knows she has to take what comes back to her. No problem there.

Sometimes, however, the emotional reaction to dissenting viewpoints can develop into a group over-reaction these days.

People rush to boycotts, use online 'flaming', or bullying, or join internet lobby campaigns to ban stuff too readily, in my opinion.

We should be encouraging intense debate and a plethora of viewpoints, not trying to drown out voices we disagree with.


Belfast Telegraph


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