Saturday, July 13, 2024

Graham Clifford: Sport in Ireland is far from being colour-blind — so let’s work together to change that

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So, you’re appalled, disgusted, and angered by the online racist abuse targeted towards Irish sprint sensation Rhasidat Adeleke? Good, me too. Now what are we going to do about it?

We could write some very powerful social media posts and see how successful they are in changing the minds of the bigots. Perhaps, if an organisation or politician releases a statement to the tune of ‘This is not who we are’.

Or, we could stand back and look at a wider issue so many in our society just don’t, can’t, or won’t acknowledge — that sport in Ireland is still a place where those of migrant backgrounds often feel excluded. Grasp the nettle, accept the uncomfortable truth and work to fix it.

Rhasidat is one of a handful of black sportspeople who have risen to the top of their game in Ireland and are still the exception rather than the rule — so they become easy targets for bigots.

We see so few people of colour in Irish sport, but most don’t even notice the disparities. In fact, people of colour in high-level sport regularly receive negative, oftentimes racist, abuse online. It’s just that on this occasion Rhasidat’s coach happened to mention it to a reporter. Often, black people in Ireland choose not to highlight the abuse because they don’t want to draw more attention to it.

So, I wasn’t in the slightest bit shocked by the news that Rhasidat was receiving racist messages in Ireland — in fact, I would have been surprised if she wasn’t. Because guess what, we have a vibrant and growing culture of active racism in Ireland. And it’s not a new phenomenon — it’s just that it’s now out in the open.

An early morning operation to remove asylum seeker tents along a stretch of the Grand Canal in Dublin last month. The labelling of the tented community as ‘shanty towns’, is part of who we are. File photo
An early morning operation to remove asylum seeker tents along a stretch of the Grand Canal in Dublin last month. The labelling of the tented community as ‘shanty towns’, is part of who we are. File photo

Hundreds of thousands of Irish voters gave a first, second, or third preference vote to candidates in last week’s local and European elections who, personally or as part of a party, espouse the strongest of anti-migrant views. Many are already on record attending anti-migrant ‘protests’ or posting about migrants in a derogatory way. They will hide behind the banner of ‘common sense’ but it would be foolish to ignore this uncomfortable truth.

And when Simon Harris says that ‘Rhasidat is Ireland’, he is correct. But it is also correct to say that his Government’s newly-discovered hardline stance on the treatment of international protection applicants, and the labelling of the tented community in which some have been staying by Dublin’s canals as ‘shanty towns’, is also part of who we are.

Politicians would be better served to move away from catchy sound bites and govern in a way that is compassionate for all. In recent months, we have seen mainstream political parties talk out of both sides of their mouths about migration. It’s all rather desperate.

But let’s look closer at this issue of those from diverse backgrounds participating in sport in Ireland. At the end of last month, Sport Ireland released its annual Sport Monitor report for the year 2023.

The report looked at participation rates for people across Irish society. The findings in relation to ethnic minorities and migrants didn’t hit the headlines, as the main line was that overall participation rates were improved.

But closer analysis shows that while sports participation increased among ‘White Irish’ to 62% since 2022, participation among ‘Black, Asian or Other backgrounds’ stood at 52%. A full 10% gap.

Also, the participation rate for the latter has dropped by a full six percentage points since the 2019 measurement, so we’re going backwards.

While social participation in sport remained highest among White Irish (58%) it dropped to just 38% for those from the ‘Other White backgrounds’ and is just 31% for those from ‘Black, Asian and Other backgrounds’.

A similar pattern exists for club memberships, which among ‘White Irish’ is 49%, ‘Other White’ backgrounds 30%, and just 24% for those in the ‘Black, Asian and Other backgrounds’ grouping.

These are macro numbers and some may not see the problem so let’s bring it closer to home.

Think of your daughter’s camogie team, your son’s soccer club, your own athletics club — how many of the members are not white? How many of the club officers are from a diverse background? What percentage of the supporters in the stands at the weekend are non-Irish by birth?

There will always be some exceptions, Sanctuary Runners for one but also initiatives such as the North East Inner City Basketball Club, NEIC Trojans, in Dublin and more generally sporting organisations such as Volleyball Ireland, but the reality is most clubs and codes are largely mono-cultural — especially across rural Ireland.

Earlier in the year, I read an excellent feature about Clare Senior Footballer Ikem Ugwueru — a 23-year-old, born in Dublin to Nigerian parents. It’s important stories such as his are told, but it’s 2024 and we’re still focussing on the exceptional mould breakers.

Why are there not dozens and dozens of GAA stars of Nigerian, Zimbabwean, Ukrainian, Polish, Brazilian, Afghan, or Indian descent in Ireland?

We need to do more, locally and nationally, to ensure sport is not just inclusive of all but that it allows equal opportunities for those of a migrant background to help shape our sports and that we celebrate their achievements and backgrounds.

It’s not enough to be non-racist. Those of us who are disgusted by the abuse Rhasidat receives need to be anti-racist. We need to actively come up with ways of including everyone in our communities in our sports.

Sanctuary Runners will work with Sport Ireland on a programme to help National Governing Bodies to attract more people from migrant communities. And we’ve found that at national level there is a ‘will’ to do better, its just finding the ‘way’ that’s the stumbling block. 

But ultimately it comes down to what’s happening at community level, club level. There’s so much that can be done. 

It’s important stories such as Clare Senior Footballer Ikem Ugwueru's are told. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan
It’s important stories such as Clare Senior Footballer Ikem Ugwueru’s are told. Photo: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Multilingual posters in Polish and Brazilian shops or in other businesses owned by migrants inviting people to the local club some evening for a taster session. Bring your sport to the community rather than the other way around if needs be. 

That could include putting up some temporary GAA goalposts in the green of a housing estate with a diverse community so people can experience the sports and perhaps join. Appoint people of colour or those of a migrant background to club positions.

And above all, stop and ask yourself how comfortable as a white person you would feel joining a club where everyone in it was black, all the managers and administrators were black and all the supporters were black. Would you feel this was a place for you?

What happened to Rhasidat was vile but condemnation without action is of very limited use. It’s important, but it doesn’t bring about change. We ALL need to do that.

  • Graham Clifford is founder and Head of International Development for the Sanctuary Runners. For more visit

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