GAA missed an opportunity after Belfast Agreement
Sean Moran: The association just couldn’t bring itself to make the first move on Rule 21
Former GAA presidents Seán McCague and Joe Mc Donagh. Photograph: David Sleator
The various commemorations and reflections on the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement are a reminder that it also had an impact on the GAA at the time.
Next week marks the 20th anniversary of the GAA’s response to the successful conclusion of the Mitchell talks in Stormont. It was at that year’s annual congress, held a few days later in Dublin’s Burlington Hotel, that the first steps were taken to resolve for good one of the most controversial issues to have dogged the association.
There had been rumours all week that then-president Joe McDonagh was considering some sort of initiative in relation to Rule 21, the contentious ban on British and Northern security forces playing Gaelic games, in response to events in Belfast.
On the Saturday of congress it was speculated that a specially convened Central Council meeting had at lunchtime decided to get rid of the rule altogether or at least suspend standing orders (necessary because the matter wasn’t on the agenda) in order to allow congress to do the same thing.
In the end, a less momentous course was charted and a special congress fixed for the end of May, just days after the referendums, North and South, on the Belfast Agreement. Caution had become advisable when McDonagh was faced with the unthinkable prospect of a split in the organisation, with fears that some Ulster delegations would walk out if the more ambitious plans were pursued.
McDonagh, who sadly died two years ago in May, was privately criticised by a number of officials at the time for pursuing what was seen to be an impetuous agenda.
The argument ran that had he tried to bring the Ulster membership along with him, the same outcome would have been achieved, but less fractiously.
In retrospect, the doubters would more than three years later, in 2001, be able to point to McDonagh’s successor, Seán McCague – who had the advantage of being an Ulsterman – and his behind-closed-doors campaign in the province, which successfully convinced the northern counties to change.
This ignores the reality that the attitude of both men was shaped by different considerations.
McCague knew from the time of his taking office in April 2000 that with policing reform on the agenda in Northern Ireland, the rule would have to go. The Patten Commission (officially the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland) had the previous September spelled it out.
In the wake of the euphoria sweeping the island after the Belfast Agreement, the GAA needed to respond to what was a new Ireland
“We specifically recommend that the Gaelic Athletic Association should repeal its rule 21, which prohibits members of the police in Northern Ireland from being members of the association. The continued existence of this rule in the light of our recommendations can only be a deterrent to the recruitment of Catholics, or a factor in separating those Catholics who do join the police from an important part of their culture.”
As president, McCague set about not so much persuading the six cross-border counties to change their mind on the issue, but to withdraw the unspoken veto on their being outvoted on the issue. It was a deeply challenging task and he did an admirable job in discharging it.
McDonagh’s situation was, however, different. In the wake of the euphoria sweeping the island after the Belfast Agreement, the GAA needed to respond to what was – literally and without hyperbole – a new Ireland. Congress isn’t given to the equivalent of Oscar acceptance speeches, but events needed a response.
Of all the provocations suffered by the GAA during the Troubles, the requisitioning of property belonging to Crossmaglen Rangers was the longest-running
In his speech to congress, the president nailed his colours to the mast.
“I say to you that we cannot, as the largest organisation in this country, shirk our responsibility or role in achieving and contributing to peace . . . I believe we must now play our part in the evolution of peace and equity, even if it means some risk.”
“Risk” referred to the taking on trust of promises to reform the police and was McDonagh’s way of acknowledging specifically the concerns of Ulster members.
A more concrete gesture was in the offing. Of all the provocations suffered by the GAA during the Troubles, the requisitioning of property belonging to Crossmaglen Rangers was the longest-running – to the extent that there was an annual motion on the congress clár denouncing it.
At the end-of-congress dinner on the Saturday, the guest of honour was taoiseach Bertie Ahern. His speech raised hopes of resolution.
“I also wish to confirm that the government, as a matter of urgency, will be raising the intolerable situation of the Crossmaglen pitch with the secretary of state for Northern Ireland. We have already been in contact with the secretary of state and she has confirmed that an early meeting will take place on the issue.”
It later emerged that he and McDonagh had been in contact all through the previous week – the president leaving a Central Council meeting he was chairing on Friday in order to take a call from the taoiseach – in an effort to present Crossmaglen as a quid pro quo.
In the weeks that followed, the rush of optimism quietened. Security grumblings about Crossmaglen stalled the handover for a year and sentiment against dropping Rule 21 built up in Ulster.
The result of the special congress was a fudge. McDonagh’s “leap of faith” had been replaced by a proviso that the rule would go “when effective steps are taken to implement the amended structures and policing arrangements envisaged in the British-Irish peace agreement.”
It was a pity that in those days of great optimism the GAA wasn’t capable of moving beyond its own minimalist promise that when things changed “the association wouldn’t be found wanting”.
In the end the rule went when, essentially, the GAA was – despite McDonagh’s best efforts – following rather than leading.