GAA made right decision to allow Irish Guards team join London branch

The most notable aspect of the regiment’s request has been the low-key coverage

The meeting was held in camera and the vote was split.

Early this month, it took the casting ballot of Noel O'Sullivan, the chairman of the London GAA to approve the affiliation of a team from the Irish Guards, a regiment of the British army that will next year compete in the London junior football championship. This small, yet significant sliver of Irish sports history comes 14 years after the abolition of the GAA's controversial Rule 21, which banned members of the British security forces from participation in its games.

While O’Sullivan, a Kerry native domiciled in London for more than four decades, doesn’t deny the sensitivities around the vote, perhaps the most notable aspect of the Irish Guards’ request has been the matter-of-fact manner in which the London authorities dealt with it and the low-key coverage it has received.

There’s been no big public airing of differences and no rekindling of the kind of heated rhetoric that dominated Rule 21 debates in the 1980s or 1990s. Or, to retreat further in time, that greeted a previous attempt by a British regiment of Irishmen to join the GAA in London: in 1900, it’s worth recalling, a team drawn from the Royal Irish Fusiliers in Colchester was denied affiliation on the grounds that any “Irishman who took the Saxon shilling forfeited his claim to Irish nationality”.


Back then, the organisation of Gaelic games in London was still in its infancy and its overtly nationalist character already established.

Yet the GAA in London – and overseas generally – has always functioned primarily as a social outlet for those of Irish birth or descent and with a passion for sport. At one level, therefore, the emergence of Gardaí Éireannach, as the Irish Guards club is to be known, will be little different to many of the clubs that have mushroomed in recent years, especially those around Britain’s third-level institutions, where over 40 teams now annually compete in GAA competitions.

Like many of these, the Irish Guards will mostly comprise players who previously played with clubs in Ireland, their number augmented by those from other countries attracted by the prospect, as O'Sullivan puts it, of trying their hand at "a good, physical, sporting game".

Irish in Britain

But of course, for all that they are the same, the Irish Guards are also very different and their entry now into the GAA community says less about the Irish in Britain – and their easy assimilation into British institutional life – than it does about developments here in Ireland and within the GAA in particular.

For decades, remember, the Troubles framed the GAA’s relationship with the crown’s police and military forces, breeding hostility and ensuring against any speedy thaw in attitudes towards the likes of Rule 21.

How could it not? It was hard to argue the case for relaxing an exclusion rule when those excluded were occupying your playing fields and engaged in the routine harassment and intimidation of your membership. It was also difficult to promote conciliation when, in places, a state of siege prevailed, when loyalist paramilitary gangs were burning your club houses and murdering your members. That all happened and it has taken the peace process and the relative normalisation of Northern Ireland’s political life to allow the space for old resentments to ease and attitudes to change.

The abolition of Rule 21 was the most obvious expression of this change, but important too, it should be said, was the GAA's response when one of their own and a member of the PSNI, Ronan Kerr, was murdered near his home in Co Tyrone by dissident republicans in 2011. As so often it does, the GAA community came to support the bereaved family, yet the symbolism of leading GAA figures such as the then president Christy Cooney and the current president, then Ulster Council chief, Aogán Ó Fearghail carrying the dead officer's coffin sent out a very powerful message.

The GAA has always been a community-based organisation, but this one very public act of leadership helped to redefine and broaden the very idea of that community. At least as far as members of the North’s police were concerned, “Them” had become “Us”.

No doubt an acceptance of the British army was always going to prove more problematic than that for a revamped local police force. Yet here too, the passage of time and an atmosphere of political tranquillity, has created a space where established attitudes and old orthodoxies can at least be questioned.

Just look at the fresh perspectives brought to bear on GAA’s own history.

Right up until the 1980s, the association did its damndest to insinuate itself into the narrative of the 1916 Rising, exaggerating its contribution to those events out of all proportion to the actual reality.

Nationalist past

What has happened since has not been a disavowal of its nationalist past – why should there be? – but a growing acceptance that its own history is more complex, more interesting indeed, than the story it traditionally told about itself.

The Ulster Council, for instance, has supported a project, "Forgotten Gaelic Volunteers", to document the Ulster GAA men who joined British army regiments during the first World War. This initiative will no doubt contribute to the growing realisation that GAA men, for all their association's exclusion rules and nationalist trappings, were more likely to have fought in British uniform in the first World War than to have marched on to the streets of Dublin during Easter Week, 1916.

What the GAA has begun to do with its past, its London unit is making real in the present. In shedding an outmoded culture of exclusivity, they are championing a GAA that truly reflects and respects the complexity of the Irish experience. For that reason alone, the decision taken by the London GAA, notwithstanding ongoing sensitivities, was the right one.

Mark Duncan is a historian and co-author of The GAA: A People's History (2009) and The GAA: County by County (2012)