Aogán Ó Fearghail sparks timely debate on place of flag and anthem in GAA

GAA president spoke on issue even though he'd been questioned in different context

There was a little more than met the ear to the comments about flag and anthem made by GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail in Dubai. On one level his statements fell into a familiar category of Augustinian prevarication: let’s be inclusive but not yet.

The much publicised remarks concerned what he said was the need for the GAA never to "have closed minds about things that we always thought were precious and sacred" and questioning: "The flag and the anthem means a lot to the GAA and will continue to do so, but who knows in the future? In the future, if there are different agreements in place for the whole of Ireland, of course the GAA would be inclusive in that."

Part of the impact of these comments comes from the fact the president hadn’t been directly asked about these issues at home but rather in the context of the GAA overseas where increasing numbers of people who aren’t Irish involve themselves in the games.

He chose to volunteer his views in a home context and raised the above talking points. After all of that, however, he appeared drastically to contextualise the discussion by saying: "In the future if there are new agreements and new arrangements we'd be open-minded about things like flags and anthems but not in advance of agreements".

This is reminiscent of the extended debate around Rule 21 – the provision that excluded members of the Northern Ireland and British security forces from membership of the GAA.

Controversy

When the controversy about this ban reached sticking point in the aftermath of the 1998 Belfast Agreement there was much talk of “the Association not being found wanting when the time came” but an institutional unwillingness to take the step of repealing the rule as a contribution to the unfolding peace process despite then president, the late Joe McDonagh, calling a special congress for that purpose.

It was his successor Seán McCague who succeeded in getting rid of Rule 21, in 2001 but by then he was getting anxious that the newly-established PSNI would end up being undermined by the GAA effectively prohibiting nationalist young men from involvement in the new police force.

The abolition of Rule 21 was accordingly not so much a great gesture by the GAA but a matter of expediency.

Nonetheless, “not being found wanting” is a defensive reflex and it was unusual to hear Ó Fearghail essentially mobilise the same line at a time when the flag and anthem issue wasn’t particularly topical.

From Cavan, the president is an Ulster GAA man and it was in the province that he first came to widespread attention, as the provincial association's public face in the aftermath of the murder by dissident republicans of PSNI officer Ronan Kerr, a member of the Beragh Red Knights club in Tyrone.

At the time he said: “Any civilised society needs a police force, we are committed to ensuring that people from nationalist backgrounds remain in and are committed to the police force.

“We come from differing and different traditions, there are many heritages and backgrounds, there are very differing interpretations of the past and the future but in the GAA we acknowledge that there has to be a shared future and mutual respect.

“We are angry that we have been attacked as an association, that a family has been robbed of a young man and that the PSNI have lost a valuable comrade.”

If Ó Fearghail appeared to qualify into oblivion the suggestion that the more explicit nationalist trappings of Gaelic games should be reconsidered it is equally fair to credit him for airing the issue at a time when he wasn’t explicitly asked about it.

Nuanced

When last in the public arena, the question was raised by former Armagh captain

Jarlath Burns

more than a year ago. His views were more nuanced than the president’s in that he didn’t attempt to make anthem and flag a negotiating issue but instead expressed that they weren’t worth the aggravation they caused to people of the other tradition in Northern Ireland.

He was of course roundly ridiculed for this perspective even though he hadn’t argued that it would assuage unionist sensitivities in respect of the GAA – simply that the association should be sufficiently confident in its sense of identity not to need the trappings.

The reason Ó Fearghail was asked the question about these trappings was that former director general Liam Mulvihill in 2004 had deliberated on the same issue in an interview with this newspaper when talking about the overseas units.

"When you hear of them looking for a rulebook and wonder what sense they make of rules one, two and three (aims and ethos). It's an aspect that's the subject of a motion to this year's congress from Australia (it didn't make it onto the 2004 clár), asking that we look at changing the basic aspirations in so far as they apply to units abroad."

The president at the weekend echoed this when he spoke about the spread of the games in non-Irish, international environments and how the European Board was rebranding itself as a Gaelic Games organisation rather than “the GAA”.

He knew what he was doing when he turned the spotlight on the situation at home and his intention, in this view, was almost certainly to create a debate on the subject here. It will be interesting to see if that debate is joined or fizzles out.

smoran@irishtimes.com