On behalf of my group, I thank the Chairman and committee for inviting us here today.
We are a group of former all-Ireland medal winners in athletics and we are here to speak about an ambiguity regarding the representation of Irish athletes competing in international competition. I am accompanied by Willie Keane, the holder of 56 all-Ireland titles, from Kilkee, County Clare; Colm Rennicks, the holder of many all-Ireland titles, from Bohermeen, County Meath; and his son, Darragh, who has the distinction of winning six County Meath seniors in a row and is on the verge of making a number of Irish teams. We have the older generation and the newer generation to pass on their views to the committee today.
The athletics situation all started in 1934, when the International Amateur Athletic Federation, as it was then named, the world governing body for athletics, adopted a new political boundary rule, which divided the country into the 26 counties of the Irish Free State and the six counties of Northern Ireland, with Britain claiming jurisdiction over the Six Counties. The introduction of the political boundary rule split the sport of athletics in Ireland for the next 85 years and deprived generations of Irish athletes the honour of representing the island of Ireland in international athletics.
There was an agreement in 1999. The inter-association agreement was based on a new all-Ireland structure for athletics, both at home and at international level. Recognition of this agreement by all the parties involved would have resolved this dispute, but this has not happened.
As a basic outline, the memorandum and articles of association of the Athletic Association of Ireland, AAI, or Athletics Ireland, state that the AAI is an all-Ireland body, the object of which is to foster and develop athletics throughout the island of Ireland. It defines Ireland as meaning the island of Ireland and it states that a county board may be formed in any of the 32 counties of Ireland. We now find ourselves in a situation where the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Sports Ireland and the president and previous presidents of the AAl are stating that the AAI must comply with the IAAF political boundary rule, which they say restricts the AAl international recognition to representing the Republic of Ireland.
The area causing the most concern for our group and for many Irish people from the 1999 inter-association agreement is the international recognition of Ireland by the International Association of Athletic Federations, IAAF. There are two opinions being expressed. The first opinion is that Athletics Ireland is an all-island body and accepted as such by the IAAF and United Kingdom Athletics since 1999, with Irish teams representing the island of Ireland at European and world championships. The second opinion is that Athletics Ireland is an all-island body at home on the island of Ireland, but when we go to the European and world championships the IAAF recognises Ireland as the Republic of Ireland and not the island of Ireland as per its political boundary rule.
Our group and many more groups around the country believe that because of the 1999 inter-association athletic agreement, Irish athletes should be accepted as representing the island of Ireland at European and world championships and enjoy the same recognition, which is granted by the Federation of Ireland, to represent the island of Ireland at the Olympic Games.
I will give a brief history of Irish athletics. We would like to take this opportunity to give some background on Irish athletics history. Athletics is one of the oldest sports in Ireland. Over the past 150 years, there have been ten different associations promoting athletics on the island. In June 1922, following Irish independence, the three athletics associations, the Gaelic Athletic Association, GAA, established in 1884, the Amateur Athletic Association, established in 1885, and the Cross Country Association of Ireland, established in 1886, merged to form a new association called the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland, NACAI. The new association would govern athletics and cycling in the 32 counties of Ireland. The NACAI applied to the International Amateur Athletic Federation, IAAF, for membership and was approved at the Paris Congress in 1924 as the member for the island of Ireland. Therefore, for the first time in Irish sporting history, one association for athletics and cycling represented the island of Ireland in international competition.
In 1925, a dispute arose between the NACAI and a number of its Belfast clubs, with some breaking away and forming a new Northern Ireland association. In 1930, the British Athletic Association claimed jurisdiction over Northern Ireland and affiliated to the IAAF as Great Britain and Northern Ireland. From 1924 to 1934, Irish athletics was recognised internationally as representing the island of Ireland. On 6 October 1934, the NACAI held a special congress in Dublin to vote to accept or reject the Border in Ireland. The result was 31 votes to 23 to reject the political boundary rule in Ireland. The NACAI was suspended by the IAAF on 1 May 1935 for refusing to recognise the Border in Ireland. This left the vast majority of Irish athletes suspended from all international competition. Six clubs from Dublin and one from Clare refused to accept the democratic vote of the NACAI congress and broke away from the NACAI. They formed the Amateur Athletic Union of Éire, AAUE, on 1 April 1937. Even though that body had only seven dubs, the IAAF accepted it as the new member for Éire because it recognised the Border. The AAUE was dissolved in 1967 when a new association was formed called Bord Lúthchleas na hÉireann, BLÉ. The IAAF accepted BLÉ as its member for Éire because it recognised the Border.
Since 1934, the international recognition of Irish athletics has been in dispute, with efforts to resolve it taking place from the 1930s to date. In the late 1990s, the Minister responsible for sport informed the athletics associations that the Government had decided to fund only one athletics body and he encouraged the associations to come together and end their division. Negotiations then took place between the NACAI, BLÉ and Athletics Northern Ireland, ANI. These meetings led to the formation of Athletics Ireland. Special congresses were held in November 1999 where the delegates were informed there was to be a new athletic association for the island of Ireland, to be based on an all-island structure both at home and at international levels. BLÉ voted to dissolve itself, the NACAI voted to join the new association and the Northern Ireland Athletic Federation was to continue as a constituent part of United Kingdom Athletics, UKA. This allowed for the formation of Athletics Ireland. Athletics Ireland then affiliated to the IAAF to represent the island of Ireland.
Today we have two associations, namely, Athletics Northern Ireland, which is affiliated to the United Kingdom, and Athletics Ireland. The agreement was submitted to the IAAF, the world governing body for athletics, and was formally approved at its council meeting in Monaco in November 1999, where Athletics Ireland was accepted as the new member federation for Ireland. The agreement was also approved by the UKA.
At the beginning, Athletics Ireland had no constitution but its new officers consulted members and within two years a new constitution was approved at an EGM. The constitution defined Athletics Ireland as an unambiguous all-Ireland body. On 26 August 1999, Athletics Ireland was incorporated as a limited company, with its memorandum and articles of association closely following the previous constitution. There is no reference in the articles of association stating Athletics Ireland is a Twenty-six Counties association. The articles of association are very interesting. The main objective for which the company is established throughout the island of Ireland is to foster the development of track and field athletics, road running, walking, cross country running, mountain running and ultra-distance running. Perhaps the most important point is that Ireland means the island of Ireland. Provincial councils may be formed in each of the four provinces. The nine counties of Ulster, Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone, are listed. County boards may be formed in each of the 32 counties of Ireland. A county is defined as being one of the 32 counties of Ireland. An objective is to strive to ensure that no racial, religious, political or other kind of discrimination will be allowed in athletics, and to take all practicable measures to stop such discrimination. Another objective is to strive to secure that there shall be no hindrance to participation of any country or individual in athletics competitions on racial, religious or political grounds and to ensure no such hindrance in athletics meetings over which the association or the IAAF has control. The agreement between the parties recognises the right of the IAAF member with jurisdiction in Ireland to organise athletics throughout the island of Ireland. A member of Athletics Ireland can sit on the board of ANI and a member of ANI can sit on the board of Athletics Ireland.
IAAF rules require all members to submit a copy of their constitution to the federation each year and Athletics Ireland has done this since 2002. It seemed that decades of acrimony had ended. Athletes from all parts of the island of Ireland were entitled to represent Ireland internationally, but at the same time athletes from Northern Ireland who wanted to represent the United Kingdom were free to do this. This arrangement gave parity of esteem to all athletes and created excellent co-operation on the ground. Unfortunately, a shadow has fallen over the agreement. The fundamental founding principles according to which Athletics Ireland was founded as an all-Ireland association are now thrown into doubt because officials of Athletics Ireland assert that the body can only represent the Republic of Ireland at European and world championships because it is obliged to obey IAAF rules, one of which states that only one association can be recognised from each country because of the 1934 political boundary rule.
In September 2009, the then president of Athletics Ireland, Mr. Liam Hennessy, wrote in a reply to a letter from Bohermeen Athletic Club, County Meath, that the Athletic Association of Ireland was the member for Ireland and recognised as such by the IAAF in its constitution. He stated the constitution states the jurisdiction of members shall be limited to the political boundaries of the country they represent and that our area of jurisdiction is the Republic of Ireland. Mr. Hennessy's statement has been endorsed by his successors as presidents of Athletics Ireland – Mr. Ciarán Ó Catháin, from 2012 to 2016, and Mrs. Georgina Drumm, from 2016 to 2020.
On 14 January 2019, in a reply to a letter from Mr. Larry Larkin, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, stated he made inquiries of Sport Ireland and was informed that, since 1924, Athletics Ireland has been affiliated to the IAAF, the world governing body for the sport. Under IAAF statutes, according to the Minister, Athletics Ireland's jurisdiction at international events covers the Twenty-six Counties and, as such, the status of Ireland at European and world athletics championships is on that basis. The Minister is incorrect in stating it was 1924 when Athletics Ireland was affiliated to the IAAF; it was, in fact, 1999.
It was the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland, NACAI, which affiliated to the IAAF in 1924. These statements are not in keeping with what is contained in the 1999 inter association agreement and completely undermine the foundations on which Athletics Ireland was built and leave Irish athletics with a dilemma that must be addressed. The vast majority of Irish sports organisations represent the island of Ireland in international competition. They include the Olympic Federation of Ireland, Cycling Ireland and more than 60 other associations, the names of which are set out in the appendix to our presentation.
Irish athletics history and Irish cycling history have much in common. To resolve the cycling dispute, the three cycling associations, the National Cycling Association, NCA, a 32-county association; the Irish Cycling Federation, ICF, a 26-county federation, and the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation, NICF, a six-county federation, came together to form Cycling Ireland, ending many years of bitter dispute in the sport. Cycling Ireland applied to the Union Cycliste Internationale for a derogation from the political boundary rule for Ireland and was successful in getting full recognition for cycling to represent the island of Ireland in all international competition. We have been greatly impressed by the progress the sport of cycling in Ireland has made since it overcame its history of acrimony and entered an era of wholehearted co-operation and incredible progress and success. We would like to see this mirrored in athletics, with Athletics Ireland and Athletics Northern Ireland standing proudly together for the good of Irish athletics on the island of Ireland and following the example set by Cycling Ireland by seeking all-Ireland recognition at European and world championships.
When we go to the Olympic Games, we go under the authority of the Olympic Federation of Ireland which represents the island of Ireland in all sports, including athletics. It is known as Team Ireland. The Olympic Federation of Ireland has stated athletes from Northern Ireland have the option of participating under its auspices on an all-Ireland team or on the Great Britain Olympics team. Hockey players Mark and Paul Gleghorne from Antrim went to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016. Paul represented Team Ireland, while his brother, Mark, represented Team Great Britain. Twenty-nine athletes from the North across seven sports, with six in track and field, went to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, of whom eight competed for Team Great Britain and 21 for Team Ireland. It is important to point out that we believe this is the correct way forward, with athletes being allowed to choose for which country they wish to represent, with no political boundary rule in operation. In the context of building peace and reconciliation on this island, a political boundary rule has no place in sport. It is time to have it removed for the good of Irish athletics and with the assistance of the Good Friday Agreement to give Irish athletes the right to compete for the island of Ireland, Team Ireland, as is the case when Ireland competes in the Olympic Games and the vast majority of other international sporting competitions, thereby making the future bright for all Irish athletes. The interplay between politics and sport is seldom far from the surface in Ireland and athletics exhibits this characteristic more than any other sport.
To move on to the reason we are before the committee - this is the crux of the matter - we would be very grateful if it wrote to the Minister with responsibility for sport, Deputy Shane Ross, to express its support for all-Ireland recognition for Irish athletics at European and world championships and request him to make representations to all relevant organisations to ensure this is achieved. We have a firm proposal to put to the committee. With goodwill from all sides, the international recognition status issue can be resolved to allow Irish athletics to join the family of Irish sports organisations that represent the island of Ireland on the European and world stage. We submit the following proposal to the committee for its consideration and support and to advise the Minister to request the following: that the Athletic Association of Ireland, in consultation with Athletics Northern Ireland, seek the approval of the International Association of Athletic Federations for the Athletic Association of Ireland to become its recognised member for the island of Ireland. It is important to point out that this can be done by seeking a derogation for Ireland from the IAAF political boundary rule. If we are successful, it will mean that the rule will remain in the IAAF constitution but that it will not apply to Ireland.
On behalf of my colleagues beside me and in the Visitors Gallery, I thank the committee for having us. We look forward to its support.