Feature: Anti-Apartheid Protest in Ireland

This month sees the publication of Kevin O’Sullivan’s new book ‘Ireland, Africa and the End of Empire: Small State Identity in the Cold War, 1955-75’ with Manchester University Press. For our February feature, we have an exclusive extract on anti-apartheid protest in Ireland.

On 5 January 1968 Robert Fahey, a student at University College Dublin, wrote to the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM) to request information about its aims and activities. By his own admission, Fahey knew little about the movement. Yet his characterisation of it said much about the IAMM’s position in the international milieu: ‘Whenever I hear the words “Anti-Apartheid Movement” an image of folk-singers and Communists are [sic.] brought to mind.’

In a year of global protest, that influence was inescapable. In Sweden, Denmark and Norway the boycott movement evolved into a strong popular and political expression of solidarity with the African liberation movements. Swedish society embraced debate on international issues, and the influence of the European New Left and the anti-Vietnam war campaign created a broad-based anti-imperial movement that expanded discussion on southern Africa far beyond the apartheid regime. In Finland, where public participation in foreign affairs was at a level similar to Ireland, the effect of global media and international protest movements was equally visible. The Committee of 100, the Finnish Students’ UN Association, and the South African Committee played a vital role in stimulating active public debate on southern Africa.

Geopolitical and cultural differences aside, the parallels to the situation in Ireland were obvious. The spread of television, mass media consumption and the creeping cultural Americanisation that characterised Irish society in the 1960s brought with them an openness to new ideas and influences from across the Western world. The lessons of civic protest they carried – not least from the United States – made the recourse to public activism all the more popular, particularly on such a relatively straightforward moral issue as apartheid. The student strikes that swept France, Germany, Italy and Britain provided an obvious source of inspiration. But equally important was the radicalisation of protest in Northern Ireland. Carol Coulter remembered that Dublin in 1968 ‘sparkled’ with the energy of student protest. For others, the allure of the American civil rights movement proved stronger. Bernadette Devlin of the Belfast-based People’s Democracy rejected the ideas of the ‘weirdos’ in Paris and London; ‘we saw ourselves basically as blacks. Many of us weren’t even aware that we lived in ghettos until we discovered the black ghettos and said, that’s our position, we’re all stuck here on the edge of towns with the worst social conditions.’

The IAAM’s experience of those changes fitted global patterns of protest movement activity. Non-relational channels of exchange were visible in Coulter’s references to Europe in 1968, Devlin’s evocation of the American civil rights movement, and Fahey’s characterisation of the IAAM. Students and others who travelled to the United States brought back ideas from the streets and university campuses. Yet the IAAM could also rely on relational channels in its links with other anti-apartheid groups. Campaign literature, posters, flyers, and, occasionally, financial assistance from the British AAM greatly helped its Irish counterpart, though the exchange was not solely one-sided. The IAAM also looked to other movements for inspiration. Its chairman Kader Asmal’s membership of the ANC fostered a close association with that organisation, its aims and objectives. Participation in the International Defence and Aid Fund strengthened those links.

In the late 1960s those ideals manifested themselves in one of the most powerful weapons of the global anti-apartheid movement: the campaign against apartheid in sport. The sports boycott induced paranoia: a survey conducted among white South Africans in 1977 identified the loss of international sport as one of the three most damaging consequences of apartheid. But its influence was not limited to the white population. For the Africans who suffered under segregation, apartheid laws in education, health, voting, housing and access to amenities greatly reduced their ability to compete with white athletes. The boycott had an equally significant impact in the West, where sporting campaigns afforded local anti-apartheid movements a striking visual representation of segregation in action.

The ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ began as a protest against the visit of the South African cricket team to England in 1970, but quickly focussed its attention on a twenty-five-match rugby tour of Britain and Ireland scheduled to begin in October 1969. The direct nature of the protests revealed a great deal about student confidence across Europe and the United States in the late 1960s. Where demonstrations against a Davis Cup tennis match between Sweden and Rhodesia at Båstad in May 1968 provided the first evidence of Swedish engagement with a year of global student unrest, the protests against apartheid in Dublin were symptomatic of the radicalisation of activism on the island of Ireland.

Sporadically successful in Britain – two matches were cancelled, thousands turned out to protest – Stop the Seventy Tour’s efforts could not compete with the reaction that the South Africans received in Ireland in January 1970. Sixty protesters met the team on its arrival at Dublin airport. Gardaí erected security barricades around the Starlight Hotel in Bray, where the Springboks stayed for their visit to Dublin. An attempt was made to throw a homemade incendiary device at the hotel, and several fake bomb warnings were phoned to its management.

On 10 January an estimated 8,000 protesters marched from Parnell Square to Lansdowne Road, where the international between the Springboks and Ireland took place. The radical politics of the period went hand in hand with the IAAM’s broad support base. Trade unionists marched alongside radical Young Socialists and left-wing organisations like Connolly Youth. Banners from all Irish political parties were visible, as well as those of the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement, People’s Democracy, Students for Democratic Action, and other social movements. At the ground Gardaí had to step in to halt the exchanges of stones, fruit and eggs that flew between rugby supporters and marchers. Inside, Lansdowne Road resembled a prisoner camp. The small crowd of 19,000 watched from behind a cordon of barbed wire and a five-foot barrier of straw. The sense of siege and conflict extended to the protesters themselves. That evening the Northern edge the march brought to Dublin broke into further scuffles between Gardaí and members of People’s Democracy, Young Socialists, and the Connolly Youth Movement outside the Royal Hibernian Hotel, where the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) treated the visitors to dinner.

Kevin O'SullivanThe huge public and media interest in the tour had involved an ever-widening number of people in the movement. But the vocal support base and cross-section of interests it now represented had another effect: where once it might have been dismissed as a movement dominated by communists and ‘lefties’, the IAAM could now validly claim to speak for a large proportion of the Irish population. And the impact of the tour was not limited to the movement. The protests represented something more than a localised reaction to apartheid: they placed Ireland firmly within the milieu of international protest and linked its experience to a broader process of Western social and political change. The Irish Press felt that the march ‘marked the coming of age of the politics of the street’; it was symptomatic of the rejection of ‘everything symbolising the State’ among the youth in Western democratic society. Its consequences were equally widely felt, first in the British Isles, and secondly in the global campaign against apartheid. However bemused the Springbok team and its staff may have been at the reaction they received, it brought home to the South Africans the weight of public opinion against apartheid, at least in sport, and led indirectly to the introduction of the pseudo-integration laws in sport in 1971 and 1976.

© Kevin O’Sullivan and Manchester University Press, 2013
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