This article was translated into Belorussian.
Як падтрымаць hillwalking ў рэспубліцы?
Many of us have built MountainViews.ie and are starting to build the walkersassociation.ie as national resources for walkers and hillwalkers in Ireland. There's quite a few other national or local projects. In Northern Ireland a resurgent Ulster Federation of Rambling Clubs is doing an increasingly useful job. Many of us haven't found the approach of the MCI (Mountaineering Council of Ireland) particularly effective in nurturing hillwalking / walking in a way that is required. Nevertheless substantial changes are occurring in this organisation so a fresh look is needed. I went along to their most recent AGM (2008). Only 15 months ago their employee numbers had dropped precipitously following turnover. Currently their professional staff is greatly strengthened. There were presentations from different members of the team. Assuming that they hold onto them this will be an effective force in future. So is everything now rosy? Should we now see the MCI as useful in the context of hillwalking and walking? Personally I think it's a bit premature to answer that one. The new staff can't really be expected to make a transformation in walking/hill-walking support in only a year. They will need good leadership which brings me to the next point.
However what about the voluntary and Board side.
Well, there has been for many years an imbalance between activities and initiatives organised for climbers and alpinists on the one hand and walkers and hillwalkers on the other. Take a look at the section on their website for Activities (Feb 2008). Six of the activities out of eight ("Rock Climbing, Indoor Climbing, Bouldering, Alpinism" etc) are no doubt fine initiatives but they certainly aren't aimed at walkers or hillwalkers. Remember: around 85% of the approx 10,000 MCI membership are walkers/hillwalkers. If you look at the target membership of the sport that percentage would be much higher.
Looking at expenditure unambiguously aimed at fostering one or other of these two general groupings, the accounts for 2007 shows a very similar picture.
I think that there is a fundamental problem in the mindset of the MCI. The mantra
"Mountaineering includes hill walking,
rock climbing, rambling, bouldering and alpinism." is outdated because it does
not take into account the vast difference in the numbers interested in these activities.
There are very different sorts of approach, balance and inspiration required for
very different types of activity with very different types of participation.
Do you believe that most of the members of the MCI or the people they aspire to have as members would even say that they are mountaineers?
Do you believe that the sort of organisation and ethos required for passionate risk your life climbers or winter alpinists is really the same as members of walking clubs meeting every second Sunday to explore and exercise on the local tops?
I believe that unfortunately the current way of thinking about things in the MCI and the bogus "we're all in this one sport of mountaineering" has led to a tail wags the dog situation. A minority of very active people interested in combining climbing, alpinism and hillwalking ("mountaineering") are imposing their culture and structures on a majority who are interested in "hillwalking/walking". By treating or rather mis-treating hillwalkers as just one facet of the "complete" sport of mountaineering the MCI approach fails hillwalkers.
It doesn't work this way in Britain where the BMC (sort of like the MCI but bigger) has less than half the membership of the UK Ramblers. It doesn't work this way in Northern Ireland. The UFRC mentioned earlier has around 27 clubs affiliated in Northern Ireland against a handful for the MCI. It's also the governing body for rambling (effectively including hillwalking) in Northern Ireland.
Change and discussion
Combining mountaineering and walking in one organisation might be possible in the Republic if serious steps were taken to rectify the voluntary organisational structure and culture. One aspect of affecting this sort of change is allowing developed discussion. A national body should allow, no should encourage, informed national discussion including controversial issues concerning its culture and organisation. Currently (Feb 2008) the MCI has neither a feedback / forum mechanism on its website nor a letters section to its magazine. Discussion is possible at the AGM but this is only annual and since anything vaguely controversial is unreported, the audience (around 55 this year) is hardly inclusive or national. I raised this question of democracy at the AGM. I was surprised at the vehemence of the opposition which was justified (as far as I can remember) by "legal liability concerns" and "risk of attacks on the MCI". On the legal front I can tell you that for the last 10 years at least I have been running forums for hillwalkers or mountaineers including 5 years for the MCI - and that's as much experience as anyone else. There is a risk but it is low and manageable - administrative convenience is not more important than encouraging thoughtful participation. The risk of attacks is indeed there and also quite possible to mitigate. Of course, what constitutes "attack" and what constitutes "fair comment" or "constructive criticism". For example as I said before as far as I am concerned the MCI ethos and balance is just inappropriate for a membership of mostly walkers. This and other issues need to be discussed and it isn't an "attack" to do so and it certainly isn't the job of professional staff to stifle reasonable debate. (Unfortunately I asserted during the short discussion that the BMC had a public online forum. Turns out that they don't so I was wrong - sorry. The UK Ramblers do however.)
If you look at the new MCI website you will now see plenty about walking/ hillwalking. That's a good start. However much of it is still derivative. There are links to walks on a series of mostly government sponsored sites including the National Waymarked Ways site, the National Parks site, the Coillte site, the Slí na Sláinte site, the Discover Ireland looped walks site. It is a measure of the weakness of the past MCI one-sided concentration over the years that they have so little of walking/ hillwalking interest of their own to point to. It will be a measure of their new organisational capability if they are able to generate useful walking or hillwalking resources (without disrupting anyone else's).
The Sports Councils now pay approximately one third of the
budget of the MCI. Assuming this continues I think they will assess the
constituencies that the MCI purport to address and over the years I would expect
(or at least hope for) a more rational distribution of resources and a more
realistic voluntary culture. Essentially these are issues of governance and they
need to be solved by the MCI Board who should be listening to and
assessing the needs of the walking public. Do I think they will? Will
anyone in the MCI have the gumption to see what the fundamental problem is and
be willing to do something about it? Remains to be seen. In the meanwhile there are
plenty of channels devoted to supporting hillwalking / walking nationally and
If anyone wants to start a discussion about this click here.
Simon Stewart © Mar 2008