A Brief History of Cycling Ireland
‘Cycling Ireland’, the trading name under which the Irish Cycling Federation operates, celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2013. While its Memorandum of Association charges the organisation to “encourage, develop and organise cycling on the island of Ireland …” current members may not be fully aware of the complex background to this apparently straightforward brief. Neither may members know that the road which led to the formation of Cycling Ireland was, at times, difficult and characterised by tension and passionate disagreement.
Therefore, on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, Cycling Ireland has produced this brief history of the governance of cycling in Ireland – in effect, the history of Cycling Ireland. From this it will be clear that we all owe a great debt to a variety of individuals and organisations whose tenacity, compromising approaches and commitment to the good of cycling brought about the unified body of cyclists and administrators that is Cycling Ireland today.
In the late 1800s various cycling groups formed in an ad hoc way and, as far as is known, Dungarvan Ramblers Cycling Club was the first formal cycling club set up in Ireland. Local records tell us that it put up a trophy for a cycle race in 1869.
Regarding the governance of the sport in Ireland, the first recorded cycling organisation was the Irish Champion Bicycle Club (ICBC) which was established in the 1870s. This was an all-island body as all of Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom This club organised the first All-Ireland Cycling Championship in 1877 and it was won by A. Spring of the ICBC who covered 50 miles in 3 hours and 37 minutes (22.2 kph).
The ICBC acted as a precursor to the formation of the Irish Cycling Association (ICA) which was formed in 1884. Later in the same year the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was formed and, as its name implies, it then catered for sports such as athletics and cycling. This led to rivalry between the GAA and ICA for members. However, by 1910 the ICA had folded leaving the nationalist-minded GAA as the main governing body.
Control of athletics and cycling was effectively removed from the GAA after 1922 when the National Athletic and Cycling Association (NACA) was formed. The same year also saw the political partition of the island after years of conflict. A majority 26 counties became the Irish Free State (to become Éire in 1937 and the Republic of Ireland from 1949) and was strongly republican and nationalistic. The other six counties remained largely loyalist and part of the United Kingdom. At this point the governance of both athletics and cycling began to fracture along the broader political and ideological lines that had developed on the island.
The NACA continued to claim jurisdiction over the administration of athletics and cycling in all 32 counties, but some athletes and cyclists in Northern Ireland formed the Northern Ireland Amateur Athletic and Cyclists Association (NIAACA).
In 1928 the cycling element of this organisation formed the separate National Cyclists’ Union - Northern Ireland (NCU-NI). This was linked with National Cyclists’ Union in Great Britain (NCU), one of the forerunner organisations of today’s British Cycling. In addition, and reflecting sporting divisions in Great Britain, the Road Time Trials Council of England (RTTC) operated in Northern Ireland from 1939 to 1946 and a Road Records Association (RRA) was formed in 1939. The RTTC was replaced by the Northern Ireland Amateur Cycling Association (NIACA) in 1947.
Meanwhile, in 1937 and following the introduction by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) of a political boundary rule, the NACA were suspended by the IAAF as it refused to limit its activities to the established political borders – i.e. to the 26 counties of the Irish Free State. This suspension meant the members of the NACA could not represent their country in international events run under the auspices of the IAAF.
In 1938 cyclists within the NACA established the National Cycling Association (NCA) intent on governing only cycling throughout the island. It retained links with the NACA but had a large degree of autonomy over cycling matters. This move represented the last administrative separation of cycling and athletics.
The 1947 UCI Directive
A significant escalation of the divisions occurred in 1947. While the NCA had competed as a 32-county Irish team at the 1947 World Cycling Championships, the NCU proposed a motion to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) – the world governing body of cycling – that the NCA’s area of jurisdiction should be confined to the 26 counties of Éire, as the Republic of Ireland was known until 1949. This was passed by the UCI and, from 1947, NCA cyclists were barred from competing in events run under the auspices of the UCI such as the Olympics and World Championships.
Partly as a result of the 1947 UCI directive, and mirroring events in athletics, a number of cycling clubs in the 26 counties broke away from the NACA in 1947 and formed the Cumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann (CRE) which confined its operations to the 26 counties in accordance with the UCI directive.
The First All-Island Initiative
In April 1949 a significant 14-point deal was brokered between the CRE, the NCU-NI and the UCI. Under this, the NCU-NI (known in the deal as “the Northern Ireland center of the National Cyclists’ Union”) would be the controlling body for Northern Ireland and the CRE for Éire. Riders from both organisations could compete in each other’s events and in Irish championships, with a list of approved championship events itemised.
In addition, teams compromising of members of both organisations could represent ‘Ireland’ in international competitions and would be selected by a joint committee drawn from members of both the NICF and CRE, the jersey would be green with the name ‘Ireland’ in the front and back. However, it also stipulated that only riders from UCI recognised associations were eligible, thus barring NCA members.
This, of course, was a cause of animosity to the NCA. From its perspective two ‘partitionist’ bodies could now compete in each other’s competitions on a 32-county basis and represent Ireland while NCA members could not.
Nevertheless, some NCA riders did compete internationally in events run by other cycling bodies disaffected from the UCI.
Therefore, at the start of the 1950s, there were three cycling governing bodies on the island of Ireland:
The National Cycling Association (NCA) which was an all-island organisation and by far the largest, but whose members were barred from UCI events because of their adherence to the 32-county ideology.
The National Cyclists’ Union-Northern Ireland (NCU-NI), recognized by the UCI, which was confined to Northern Ireland and was affiliated to the National Cyclist’ Union (NCU) in Great Britain. However, its members could compete in CRE events in the Republic and could represent Ireland internationally.
Cumann Rothaíochta na hÉireann (CRE) which was a 26-county organisation , strongest in the Leinster area, which was recognized by the UCI as the governing body for the Republic of Ireland and whose members could compete internationally in UCI events and in NCU-NI events in Northern Ireland.
There were other subtle differences between the organisations. The NCA, for example, was mainly focused on grass-track racing up to the early 1950s while the NCU-NI, mirroring British cycling tradition, had a strong emphasis on both grass-track racing and time-trialing. The CRE, on the other hand, had a strong focus on road-racing from its inception in 1947. The current dominance of road-racing did not begin to emerge until the mid-fifties.
These divisions led to much bitterness and animosity, with NCA members especially feeling aggrieved at not being recognised by the UCI and being denied international representation because of their 32-county stance.
Meanwhile, the situation was to become somewhat simplified in Northern Ireland in 1954 when the NCU– NI, RRA and NIACA amalgamated to form the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation (NICF).
A number reconciliation attempts between the CRE and NCA in the Republic were initiated in the 1960s and early 70s but proved fruitless. However, informal discussions began between influential members of both organisations in 1973 following some particularly acrimonious incidents. As a development of this, in 1974, reciprocal teams from both were invited to the Rás Tailteann and the Tour of Ireland – two high-profile stage races run separately by both federations.
Further discussions ensued and the NICF were brought into the process, leading to a significant compromise in 1979. This became known as the ‘Tripartite Agreement’ whose main purpose was “….to establish a form of representation of the three federations vis-à-vis the international cycling bodies, as well as to establish a base for cooperaton of the entire Irish cycling sport.”
Under this agreement the three organisations remained independent but cyclists from each could compete in the other’s events. An Irish Cycling Tripartite Committee (ICTC), with nominees from each of the three bodies, was established to manage the arrangement. Also, it was agreed that “one unified team shall compete in the World Championships” and it would be selected by the Tripartite Committee.
The Tripartite Committee operated from 1979 up to 1988 and, while it encountered a variety of difficulties during that time, it was a remarkable example of compromise and cooperation given the context of the polarisation, passion and violence involved in ‘The Troubles’ during those years.
The arrangement, however, was untenable in the long term and, particularly in view of the 1984 decision of the UCI to recognise only one governing body per country.
Partly as a result of this, and the fact that the Tripartite arrangement was only ever intended as an interim arrangement, the organisations agreed in 1987 that the ICF and NCA would amalgamate, the Ulster Council of the NCA and NICF would also amalgamate into a 9 county entity with these amalgamations collectively resulting in a Federation of Irish Cyclists (FIC) as a governing body for the 32 counties. This arrangement was given formal recognition by the UCI with effect from 1988 and the deal marks the beginning of Cycling Ireland as we know it today, Cycling Ireland being the registered trading name for the Irish Cycling Federation since December 2001.
However, in spite of the intended agreement, a split was to occur in Ulster cycling as a result of it. Even though the majority of clubs in the Northern Ireland Cycling Federation agreed, the two-thirds majority necessary to ratify the agreement was not reached. Those clubs in the NICF who agreed with the deal left the NICF and merged with the Ulster Council of the former NCA to form the Ulster Cycling Federation (UCF) and became part of the new FIC, those clubs that did not wish to be part of the new FIC remained as part of the NICF Later that year SportNI gave formal recognition to the newly formed Ulster body.
This situation then left the remains of the NICF as the disaffected body on the island. Even though it had been autonomous within the UCI and had never been affiliated with the British Cycling Federation (BCF) such as England, Scotland and Wales, it now demanded that, as British citizens, its members should be able to get licences from the BCF.
The Final Chapter
The issue remained in a state of flux and contention for a number of years leading to some tensions between the FIC and BCF on the one hand and between various interests in Northern Ireland on the other. The British Cycling Federation did provide various accommodations for the NICF. By 1992, for example, both the BCF and UCI were agreed that the FIC was the sole governing body for the island of Ireland and the BCF for the island of Great Britain. An arrangement allowed BCF to issue licences to individual cyclists in Northern Ireland who wished to avail of this arrangement.
The UCI found it difficult to broker an agreement in the face of much high-level lobbying from all sides and, at its 2002 congress, it reiterated the position that Cycling Ireland (the trading name for FIC from 2001) would be the sole governing body for the island of Ireland. An agreement to implement this condition was reached in 2004 between British Cycling (the new name for the BCF) and Cycling Ireland.
This left NICF riders further isolated from competition on the island. At its general meeting in 2006 it decided that, from 2007, its members would take licences from Cycling Ireland and that its clubs would affiliate with it. The NICF subsequently affiliated to Cycling Ireland as a Promotions Group in order to promote certain races.
At this point, divisions in the administration of cycling on the island of Ireland came to an end.
It will be seen from this brief overview that Cycling Ireland has had a rather complex and troublesome history. Its legal name as a ‘Federation’ of Irish Cyclists mirrors this, with the notion of a ‘Federation’ representing the accommodations and compromises that were eventually made for the greater good of cycling.
These accommodations mean that administrators of cycling at every level can now focus solely on promoting cycling rather than the inter-organisational rivalries that preoccupied many of their predecessors. And for cyclists it means that all riders on the island can now compete against each other under common conditions and with equal opportunities available to all.
The current healthy state of cycling in Ireland is a both a legacy and a tribute to all who have contributed to this development and growth of the organization – Cycling Ireland says “thanks” to all.