FERGUS FINLAY: As well as sex education we must teach our children about empathy

The Roots of Empathy programme helps raise social and emotional competence among schoolchildren.

This is, and remains, a man’s world, a world built on privilege for some and deep injustice for others, writes Fergus Finlay

DROVE to Limerick with a slightly heavy heart on Saturday. I was driving down to support Shannon Rugby Club, who were about to play a season-defining match against UCC. And I’d pretty well decided that it would be the last rugby match I’d ever watch.

Not because of Shannon. I’ve only been a member of the club for a couple of years, but I’ve come to admire everything about them. The players, the supporters, the committee, the people behind the scenes who keep the show on the road — they’re all amazing. It’s essentially an amateur game at Shannon’s level, and it requires an enormous amount of effort to keep its traditions alive.

It’s the traditions of the club, and its strong links to the community, that drew me originally. I have no background in Limerick rugby — but how could anyone fail to be attracted to a club that has had Mick Galwey and Anthony Foley among its captains, and where players like Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, and the legendary Ginger McLoughlin are regularly to be seen?

The club’s links to the community are real and deep. For the past several years they have, in addition to everything else, given unstinting support to a children’s charity that works with disadvantaged kids in the shadow of Thomond Park — even to the extent of wearing the Barnardos logo across the front of their strip. Who wouldn’t want to be a member of a club like that?

And yet. For several weeks now there has been something at the heart of Irish rugby that is deeply repellent. If the game I grew up with stood by and allowed two of its young stars to get away with ugly and disgusting behaviour, not just towards a young woman but towards women in general, it would have been impossible to support it.

There’s no need to repeat here some of the things that were said, and defended by some because they were “private”. The bottom line is that the words and language used weren’t just disgusting, they spoke of a deep sense of self-entitlement, self-regard, and contempt.

So I was relieved when I turned on the car radio and heard the IRFU statement that they had revoked the contracts of the two players involved with immediate effect. The statement referred to the principles of respect and inclusion as the basis for their decision, and it was good to hear it.

I hope they mean it. It’s been clear for a long time now that professional sport in particular is increasingly being built around money, status and entitlement for its star performers. The corrupting effect of those features is obvious, especially when it’s combined with a set of “I’m worth it” structures and attitudes.

Of course it’s not just sport. The #MeToo revelations of the past few months show how ingrained and how corrosive the power imbalance is, and how much damage it can do. This is, and remains, a man’s world, a world built on privilege for some and deep injustice for others.

It’s heartening that so many women have spoken up, and taken cases. There is a spontaneous and growing movement of women now, determined to ensure that the issues of abuse that go hand in hand with accepted privilege are confronted, and that casual sexism is not allowed to go unchallenged.

But it’s dispiriting, isn’t it, that there isn’t an equally spontaneous movement of men, especially young men, willing to have their voices heard alongside the voices of women, saying the same things about respect and consent.

We need a new hashtag to stand beside #MeToo. One that will enable men to express their determination to understand and stick to basic principles of equality between the sexes. I asked my daughters what it might be called, and Vicky suggested #HeToo. So I’m going to start one, and see how it goes. But a hashtag will not do the job on its own.

There is huge debate now about the need for education to address all these issues in a much more meaningful way, and the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, has now announced a significant review of the way we approach relationships and sexuality education in our schools.

It starts with children. For a number of years now Barnardos have been offering a programme in schools around Ireland called Roots of Empathy.

The programme was developed by a Canadian educator called Mary Gordon and has been validated in different countries around the globe. It’s a charming and effective programme that has actually been shown to raise social and emotional competence among school children (we offer it from first to sixth class in primary schools). It promotes empathy and reduces conflict. Teachers who have seen the programme at work all testify that respect between children goes up, and that bullying goes down.

We offered the programme last year to nearly 5,000 children, and we’re always seeking new opportunities for it — because it works. Long before any review of the curriculum is completed, programmes like these, which add real value to children’s lives and bring a lot of joy to schools, need to be included. They don’t involve changing the curriculum because they can be built into the existing school day without hassle. No systems changes are necessary, no big bureaucratic obstacle need to be removed. We just need to start teaching empathy.

My daughters would also say it’s a job for home too. If you have a youngster who’s showing promise at sport, or who just wants to get involved in everything it offers, parents nowadays have to stop and think about the culture. The physicality of a lot of sports is one thing, but if involvement in an all-male club or team is going to mean joining a culture that takes pleasure from demeaning women, that’s far too dangerous a road to allow children down.

It’s why change is necessary, in sport, in families, in education. Sport in particular — winning and losing — ought to be capable of offering positive and powerful values that help people grow into well-rounded and happier people. We all have heroes in the world of sport. What makes people heroes is not just the winning, it’s the work, the effort, the belief in each other.

But when instead it’s breeding entitlement and self-glorification, it’s time to stop. That’s not what sport is about.

BY THE way, Shannon finished their season as they had begun it. A team that has been struggling on the pitch for some years completed a glorious season by playing a great match, nervy at first but growing in confidence and determination throughout, against my old alma mater UCC.

When the fourth try was scored, and the bonus point secured, promotion to the first division, where Shannon surely belong, was guaranteed. Grown men hugged each other and cried. Kids crowded in to have selfies taken with their heroes. All the supporters formed a circle at the end, with the players in the middle — some of them with their kids on their shoulders — and sang a moving, rousing, version of “There is an isle”. That, I thought, is the way rugby is meant to be.


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