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The Sports Interview: Let the games begin...

Last update - Wednesday, May 9, 2007, 00:00 By Metro Éireann

The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) last year became the first sports governing body in Ireland to appoint an intercultural officer. Des Tomlinson talks to CATHERINE REILLY about his first nine months in the job – and the FAI’s new Intercultural Strategic Plan, which will be launched in the coming weeks 

There is something vaguely perceptible in the tone of Des Tomlinson’s voice that suggests the FAI intercultural officer has been experiencing a thorough education in the challenging world of sports politics, Irish-style.

His role so far has been mainly about consulting – and planning – for the development of the FAI’s three-year Intercultural Strategic Plan, which is likely to be released next month. It is the template from which Tomlinson will work to encourage more ethnic minorities to become involved in soccer in Ireland in any capacity.

“The strategic plan has been in development now for a number of months,” he explains. “We’re hoping to launch it towards the end of May, [but] it’s more than likely going to be in June sometime, so we’re just at the finish currently.”
Belfast-based consultants from the Institute for Conflict Resolution/Democratic Dialogue were appointed by the FAI to compile the intercultural strategy, in partnership with Tomlinson, whose main role is its implementation.

The consultations have also involved a Football Intercultural Advisory Group (FIAG), comprised of representatives from the Department of Justice/NPAR (National Action Plan Against Racism), the NCCRI (National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism), Sport against Racism in Ireland (Sari) and Show Racism the Red Card, in addition to the FAI.

With a background in playing, coaching and using sport as a tool for inclusion (through his work in England in the mental health service), Tomlinson must be chomping at the bit to begin “the real work”.

Indeed, he comments: “People on the ground want to see results, and sometimes planning can delay that – but it is important to plan, it’s important to get things right. The real work is at the coalface, and the real work is putting things in place… but I think you’re right, I can’t really wait to get my teeth into the implementation stage.”

Regarding the Strategic Plan, he notes: “The plan is really looking at how we can get more people involved participating in football that are from minority ethnic backgrounds – so the plan just goes into a bit more detail around that; the issue of racism and how that’s dealt with, the plan gives some objectives about how we can achieve that.

“A major part of the plan is how we increase awareness and how we reach out to people, and some of that will be done in terms of promotions at a media level. The bigger part of that is about developing relationships with communities and that will be done through our network of development officers that we have across the country, but yes, reaching out to people and making people aware of how they can get involved would be a big part of plan.”

When his appointment was announced last July, Tomlinson’s key tasks were said to include, according to an FAI press release, “co-ordinating the development of an anti-racism and social inclusion strategy using participation in football as a key tool”, but according to Tomlinson, his role is very much focused on the fight against racism within soccer itself, and the participation of more ethnic minorities – which he hopes will have a broader societal impact.

“The FAI is a governing body of sport, so I think its first remit is to make sure that the sporting arena of which it is the governing body challenges racism, so that would be the remit of the FAI, ” he says. “In the remit of the Intercultural Advisory group there are other groups involved with that [racism in society], but certainly I can only speak for the work of the FAI, and that would be to challenge racism within football.

“Football is high profile so therefore any message that can come from football we would hope that it would have a wider effect within society – but the plan is to challenge racism within football, to increase participation within football.”

Tomlinson’s role extends to promoting the inclusion and participation of Travellers in soccer – but the areas of sexism and homophobia are not specifically included in his job description. “The FAI as an organisation is trying to work – and I guess it’s at the beginning stages –in the area of inclusion, and an example of that would be the work that’s been done in the area of Football For All – in the disability area. The women’s development unit is being put in place…

“If you want to play football, then your status doesn’t matter; the fact that you want to do it is the most important thing. Within my remit, I wouldn’t say it [combating sexism /homophobia/disability bias] is something that I was employed to do but certainly from a personal perspective I would hope that we can make sure that the door is open for everyone.”

Travellers are termed an “indigenous ethnic minority” by the FAI, and are included in the plan. In fact, Tomlinson has already been involved in work with Traveller groups: “I’ve been working with Pavee Point in the youth section quite a lot, looking at how we can get some young leaders from the Travelling community involved in football–get them through their first level of coaching which is the Kick Start 1, and move them on from there and get them involved in football.”

The plan will also involve the establishment of a system of benchmarking racist incidents relating to Irish soccer, in order to gauge increases or decreases – and set in place a procedure through which people can report such incidents.

There is also the issue of the FAI’s promotional literature which, judging on some current examples, needs urgent ‘diversity proofing’ – in other words, the inclusion of people from various ethnicities in the images used.

“People need to see an image they can associate with,” agrees Tomlinson, who refers to a number of changes already in place in some of the Summer Soccer Schools and Kick Start literature, both of which now include a question on participants’ ethnicity. “But yeah, there are things that need to be improved,” he says, “but certainly there are things that have already been done.”

Once the plan is launched, Tomlinson foresees that he will be straight into the thick of things. With soccer being one of the most potent tools for integration, there will doubtless be many interested onlookers.

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