Special Olympics is fuelled by wholesome, not mercenary, motives

IT was the words of a Protestant clergyman that really upset me this week.

I found them frightening and shocking, and I have been hoping ever since that they were uttered without thought.

No, I'm not talking about the words of Ian Paisley. What Paisley had to say about Brian Cowen was disgusting, racist and premeditated. They were of a piece with the kind of thing he has been doing and saying for 30 years or more. He doesn't care who he insults or offends.

Brian Cowen, whatever else he might have, has a thick skin. He didn't get where he is today without being able to deal with insults. He knows that Paisley was seeking to appeal to a constituency that may take another generation to die away, but die away it will. Paisleyism will not survive Paisley long.

However, the words I found more alarming were uttered by another Protestant clergyman, the Protestant Rector in Clonmel, the Reverend George Knowd, during a visit to the town by RTÉ's Prime Time last week. The programme reporter David Nally was interviewing the Reverend about the decision of Clonmel Corporation to recommend that the Hong Kong Special Olympics team should stay away from the town, lest they should bring the dreaded SARS virus with them. This is what the Rector had to say (and he was commenting in the first place on the Mayor of Clonmel): "I'm 100% behind him I think he's a very brave man to have come out and said what everybody is saying locally, as far as I can see anyway.

"Whatever I say here is my own personal view, but I think it is a serious situation, when you look at the worldwide map and see how SARS is creeping all over the place, I think we have to take notice of it.

"There is an underlying feature of this, which nobody's talking about there is a mercenary side to this there's an enormous amount of money involved, both for Ireland in terms of the amount of visitors that are coming, and the amount of money that is being invested in the team in Hong Kong and in various other places. So, you know, when there's money involved I get the terrible funny feeling these days that lives don't matter too much."

When David Nally (rather mildly, I thought) asked him if he thought the Special Olympics was a money-driven organisation, Rev Knowd added: "It isn't necessarily, but the danger of it stopping, there is a financial aspect to it. I'm not saying it's the driving factor, but there is a financial aspect to it."

Now, I don't know Rev Knowd, never met him. For all I know, he may be the soul of kindness and decency. His studies of the worldwide map certainly seem to have produced a certain vagueness about SARS. It's non-existent in many parts of the world, and throughout Europe you probably have a better chance of dying by being hit on the head by a coconut than you have of dying of SARS. But he's entitled to his view that SARS is posing an immediate and deadly threat to his Clonmel flock, just as they're entitled to make whatever recommendation they want in relation to the visit of the Hong Kong team. It's Clonmel's loss if the visit doesn't go ahead, as far as I'm concerned.

But it was the "underlying feature" referred to by Rev Knowd that really shocked me. According to him (and I've quoted him verbatim above), people associated with the Special Olympics World Games are prepared to take risks with people's lives for mercenary reasons.

What an astonishing accusation to make. I was doubly astonished when he wasn't challenged to substantiate or withdraw the remark, and outraged when, far from dismissing it, Prime Time presenter Brian Farrell then went on to put it as an accusation to Mary Davis, the chief executive of the World Games. To her credit, she didn't rise to the bait, though she must have found the remarks hurtful.

Ms Davis has devoted her adult working life to seeking to make life better for people with intellectual disabilities. The notion that she, or anyone associated with her, would take risks with anyone's life is contemptible. Anyone who knows her knows that she hasn't a mercenary bone in her body. And the development of the Games, far from being fuelled by mercenary motives, has been fuelled by all sorts of small (and some not so small) sacrifices on the part of thousands of people because they believe in something that's pretty good and wholesome.

I hope someday that Rev Knowd has the wit and the grace to realise what a dangerous attitude foolish remarks like that can foster.

Because ever since this silly SARS hysteria started, the Special Olympics has become almost the villain of the piece. I haven't heard a single media suggestion that students or business people or tourists from any of the affected countries should be discouraged from coming to Ireland. But you can hardly turn on the radio without hearing someone else speculate about the Games even to the extent that maybe they should be cancelled altogether.

Cancelling the Games, without any good public health or other reason for doing so, would be just another example of discrimination against people with learning disabilities. These Games sprang out of the disability movement and they mean more to people with disabilities than they do to anyone else.

But the establishment never seems to realise that. Or if they do, I often wonder if they care.

People with disabilities are at the bottom of the pile in Ireland and have always been. Throughout the period of high economic growth they got crumbs from the rich man's table all right, but the opportunity to finally sort out all the issues of neglect and discrimination that had built up over generations was ignored.

It's still happening, I reckon.

Another largely unreported statement this week was from the Tánaiste, Mary Harney, when she was asked on Morning Ireland whether the forthcoming Disability Bill would contain legally enforceable rights, as has been long promised. In her answer, she waffled on about "there are

real problems and there are barriers in our society what everybody's concerned about is services courts are confrontational the last thing we want to see is the money that should go towards services go towards lawyers ".

It sounded suspiciously like code to me. It sounded like the bill would be more verbiage, like the one that angered the entire disability movement before. It sounded as if the Department of Finance, which has set its face against enforceable rights for years, was still dominating the debate in Cabinet.

All the signs are that the Government will publish a Disability Bill just before the Games. If it has rights, it will be welcome and proof that the holding of the Games in Ireland was worth all the effort. If the bill is just more waffle, and that's what it sounds like, this Government will stand accused of the most blatant piece of political opportunism and cynicism in its entire seven years of office so far.

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