26 January 2006

Ireland’s struggle taken to Munich Olympics

Daily Ireland

**Via Newshound

Danny Morrison

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Mary Peters — the “Belfast girl” (News Letter) — had just set a new world record in the pentathlon and won Britain’s first gold medal in the competition.
Peters said: “When I saw the Union Jacks and heard the cheers from the British crowd, it lifted me and I knew I would do well.” When she was told that Prime Minister Ted Heath was in the stadium, she said: “I hope he’s as proud to be British as I am.”

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Two days later, members of the Palestinian Black September organisation infiltrated the Olympic village in Munich and broke into the Israeli compound. Two Israeli athletes died in the initial confrontation and nine others were taken hostage.
The militants demanded the release of 236 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and their free passage to an Arab country. When this was refused, they demanded an aeroplane to fly them to the Middle East. The German authorities agreed. The captors and their hostages were flown by helicopter to a nearby airport. German snipers opened fire and provoked a shoot-out that left nine Israelis, four Palestinians, a German policeman and a pilot dead.
Later this week, Steven Spielberg’s film Munich opens in Ireland. It tells the story of Munich in September 1972 and its aftermath when Israeli agents across Europe assassinated suspected Palestinian militants in revenge.
“If things had gone according to plan, nobody would have been killed,” said Abu Daoud, one of the organisers of the Black September attack. He said that no one in the West cared or had heard about the 50 Palestinian children who were killed when the Israeli army bombed a school in al-Rasheda two weeks before Munich.
“People were more interested in sports than in the plight of the Palestinians.”
One morning, a year before Munich, 18-year-old Brian Holmes (aka Homer) was going for an early morning cycle when he noticed scores of British army Saracens and Jeeps parked in the Suffolk area of west Belfast. He saw veteran republicans Jimmy Drumm and Gerry Maguire being marched over to one of the vehicles. Assuming it was a just a routine arrest, he waved to them, without realising that this was the beginning of internment, which would literally lead to an explosion of IRA activity and a major turning point in the conflict.
On his return journey a few hours later, Homer couldn’t get back to his street. The British army had sealed off Andersonstown. Homer had to scale a fence and cross the M1 motorway, only to get caught up in the middle of a clash between soldiers and local residents. He saw a soldier take aim and fire at a young man, hitting him in the chest. Homer went to help and then realised that it was his friend, 17-year-old Frank McGuinness. A car was waved down but McGuinness died shortly afterwards. The British army claimed he had been throwing a petrol bomb.
Homer said: “That had a profound effect on me and I decided to join the republican movement. I cut back on the cycling but then, in the summer of 1972, Con McHugh, a well-known republican, approached me and asked me to start training again. He said he would tell me all about it later.”
Homer was a member of the National Cycling Association, a 32-county body that was critical of the official cycling bodies — the Irish Cycling Federation, which catered for the 26 Counties; and the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation, which was set up in 1949 to cater for the Six Counties — that is, unionist sensibilities. The NCA was denied access to international sporting events because of its principled opposition to partition.
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1972 was the year of Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday. It was also the year when loyalist paramilitaries unleashed a sectarian murder campaign against innocent Catholics. In August 1972, the British government introduced Operation Motorman (**see Museum of Free Derry), and the British army occupied Catholic schools and GAA grounds.
“It was then I learnt what I was training for. The NCA — which wasn’t recognised and had been excluded by the Irish Olympic Committee, despite having some superior cyclists — was going to organise an unofficial team for the Munich Olympics. We were aiming to protest against the British occupation of our areas, including GAA property, the brutalisation of prisoners, the loyalist murder gangs with whom the Brits were colluding, and the fact that there was no all-Ireland cycling team,” said Homer.
Seven members went out to Munich and joined four others. After the shoot-out and the massacre at the airport, they thought that the games — and thus the protest — would be called off. However, the International Olympic Committee president declared that “the games must go on” and so they did, with the flags flying at half-mast.
“We weren’t sure what to do but Benny, our manager, said: ‘No, this is an ideal time for us to do it because it’s going to be a peaceful demonstration.’
“We knew how to beat security by being out at the crack of dawn before they arrived. We had taken up several positions around the course and waited for hours. However, the games had been postponed for a day out of respect for the dead. We went back the following morning.
“All the teams — about 50 in all — were riding up and down this long track waiting to be called for the road race and have their numbers checked. It was our intention to get into the middle of them and participate and for others, in front of the stadium, to distribute leaflets and explain our protest. Four of our members were challenged at the very start because they had no numbers.
“At another spot, I climbed up a pole which carried the PA system and severed the wires. The Hungarians and Russians didn’t hear themselves being called but, when an official came down and waved to three or four teams, we jumped into the middle.
“We were challenged by a steward but he was pushed aside and the lads cycled through to the starting line. A couple of us had made our way over to the British team. I pulled off my track top and underneath was my Irish shirt. Over the speakers around the grandstand, there were calls for the Irish team to please come to the side. One of the Brits said: ‘Next time I’m back in Ireland, there’ll not be too many Irish teams!’ Well, when he said that, I just had to give him a thump. There was total confusion. Batty Flynn from Kerry made his way over to the official with the firing pistol, pulled it from him and fired. Half the cyclists thought the race had begun. Others were trying to stop it.”
The protesters scattered leaflets protesting against British rule in Ireland and handed out press packs in four languages — German, French, English and Irish. The police pounced on them but not before Homer had shouted towards German Chancellor Willy Brandt in the VIP grandstand: “Your friend Heath has Irish blood on his hands!”
Further out the road, another protester, Jean Mangan from Kerry, joined Flynn — who, to the consternation of the official Irish team, opened up a ten-yard lead. For the next two laps, there were, bizarrely, three Irish teams in the race and commentators didn’t know the identity of the lead cyclist because Flynn had no number. After five miles (eight kilometres), Flynn was forcibly taken out of the race by police on motorcycles.
All of the protesters were taken into custody until after the event and their bikes impounded. They took some flak at a subsequent press conference, especially from RTÉ over the question of mixing sport and politics. They said they had been exposing Britain for using the Olympic Games to assert British occupation.
At the same Olympics, ten African nations forced the international body to withdraw its invitation to Rhodesia, and two black American athletes who won gold and silver in the 400 metres final gave clenched-fist salutes as members of the Black Panther movement.
Today, one organisation — the Irish Cycling Federation — represents the majority of cyclists, North and South, with the exception of a few Northern clubs that prefer to be licensed by the British Cycling Federation.
Two months after the protest at the Munich Olympics, Brian Holmes was interned without charge in Long Kesh. In 1973, the British government introduced quasi-judicial hearings in an attempt to assuage international criticism of internment.
“I was brought up in front of one of these tribunals,” he said. “From behind a screen, an anonymous Brit intelligence officer told the tribunal commissioner that I had attempted to disrupt the 1972 Munich Olympics and that I and my group had co-ordinated the protest with Black September. It was absolute nonsense, of course, but that’s what was said and that’s what was believed.”
Brian Holmes was interned for another two years.

Danny Morrison is a regular media commentator on Irish politics. He is the author of three novels and three works of non-fiction.

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