Support divided as GAA consider lifting controversial rule 21 ban


Jarlath Burns teaches Irish at a school in Bessbrook Co Armagh and comes from a staunch republican background. "But I am a GAA man before I am anything else," he said this week as endgame approached for Rule 21.

An Armagh football player for 13 years, his loyalties lie with the association despite any personal reservations he may have about the rule which forbids British armed forces and police participating in Gaelic sports.

"It is difficult for me coming from a very republican tradition," he said. "But I have to think about what is best for the association. I have faith in the leadership to make the right decision and I will accept the decision".

While he understood the pressure for the Rule to be abolished now, in the past it had served a worthy purpose.

"It acted as a buffer . . . it gave us consolation to know that the GAA understood what we felt about the police and the army. It was a non-violent protest against the way the authorities were set up here over the last 70 years," he said.

Naturally, the lifting of the ban will have barely any affect in the South but Burns also believes that in the near future it will cause barely a ripple in clubs across Northern Ireland. "What will happen if the rule is changed? Absolutely nothing," he said. Pointing to Rule 18, which stipulates that to join the GAA an individual must embrace all the principles of the organisation he said it would be perfectly within a clubs rights to refuse admittance to members of the police on those grounds even after Rule 21 goes.

"In the present circumstances, whether we like it or not, if a policeman joins a club in Lurgan it would probably be inadvisable for him to play against a team in South Armagh," explained Burns.

"Police will begin joining whenever it is safe for them to do so and that time will come when there is an acceptable police service operating here". There would be some considerable competitive advantages to "big, strong athletic fellas" in the police and army swelling GAA ranks, he admitted adding that he would also "love to see more Protestants participating in GAA activities."

While few seriously believe British soldiers or members of Northern Ireland's brand new police service will be queuing up outside GAA clubs after the weekend, there are some who are already shaking mothballs from the jerseys that for years Rule 21 prohibited them from wearing.

Constable Sean McNulty played at school for his local team St Peter's in Warrenpoint, and went on to win an All Ireland minor medal for Down in 1977. He had been interested in a career with the RUC for much of his life but said it was always in the back of his mind that pursuing his chosen career would mean giving up his beloved GAA.

"I joined in 1982, it was just after the Hunger Strikes so feelings were running high," he said.

"But Warrenpoint was not a republican town when I was growing up, I saw the RUC as just an ordinary decent job".

The wrench was severe, a life without GAA frustrating. "I got into playing soccer, ran marathons instead. I have met a lot of fellas like myself who had to give it up because of what they do for a living, I see it as pure discrimination," he said.

The frustrating days of being on the fringes of the GAA - he has been known to pull in his police car to watch a football match in the grounds of a club - may now be over for McNulty.

"Hopefully we are going to set up a police team. I have 10 boys in the police who would be willing to strip out tomorrow," he said. The GAA were closing ranks this week, reluctant to talk too much about what is a deeply sensitive subject. At St Gall's GAA club off the Falls Road in Belfast, a committee spokesman said it would wait for a decision before making any comments.

A man sitting at the club bar spoke about the justification for the rule. "There was a war on and those who joined the RUC were seen to be jumping over to the other side. They couldn't expect to keep playing in those circumstances," he said, while conceding that it was probably time for the rule to go.

Another Belfast GAA supporter fell back on the city's notorious brand of black humour to explain how he felt. "I was always against Rule 21. We should have let them play, if there was a war on then where better to get them but on a GAA pitch?," he laughed.

"I would pay good money to see the first RUC team line up against a GAA club on the Falls Road, especially if it was a hurling match. "But I would make sure I was very close to the exit".

Rule 21

Members of the British armed forces and police shall not be eligible for membership of the Association.

A member of the Association participating in dances, or similar entertainment, promoted by or under the patronage of such bodies, shall incur suspension of at least three months.