GAA should distinguish between statements of identity and political campaigning

David Gough’s rainbow wristband is more a reflection of an individual’s identity than a statement of political allegiance

David Gough: “I understand the GAA’s viewpoint. I completely understand it. There has been no fall-out between me and the powers-that-be in the GAA over it.” Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

David Gough: “I understand the GAA’s viewpoint. I completely understand it. There has been no fall-out between me and the powers-that-be in the GAA over it.” Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

On Saturday night referee David Gough managed to distribute the free count between Dublin and Tyrone 7-25 and yet – apart from a couple queries from Jim Gavin – the controversy surrounding the Meath official was about something else altogether.

By this stage people will be familiar with the back story. Gough wanted to wear a Gay Pride rainbow wristband in order to signify support for the May equal marriage rights referendum. He contacted Croke Park on Friday and ran the idea past Patrick Doherty, secretary of the National Referees Committee, who initially didn’t raise a problem.

Later in the day, however, Doherty decided the matter should be checked with other departments and was advised the GAA couldn’t be seen to stand over an endorsement of one side or another in a referendum.

Gough was unhappy with the decision, which meant that the gesture which he had planned and discussed with all of those whom he felt were relevant stakeholders – Meath county board, the school where he teaches, other referees and the GAA – could not now take place.

“I was told flatly that I could not do it,” he told the Sunday Independent. “I am disappointed, dismayed and feel I and all gay members of the association have been let down.”

No fall-out

Marian FinucaneRTÉ

When the presenter put it to him that the second intention had created the difficulty, he replied: “Yes and I understand that. I do understand that. As I say they’ve been completely supportive of me.”

Alan Milton the GAA’s Head of Media Relations said in a statement on Saturday: “It’s a black and white issue. The association is apolitical. Any member is allowed to have their own political views or opinions outside but Croke Park is not the place to make political gestures.”

The prohibition in Rule 1.11 is on party-political and not just political: no discussion at GAA meetings and no representative involvement.

It’s probably fair to include referendums as party-political issues with a small ‘p’, particularly in more recent times when it’s not unusual to have nearly all political parties (big ‘p’) promoting a particular side in a referendum and substantial numbers of the electorate taking an opposing view.

As an example of this policy it was pointed out that in the 2012 Children’s Referendum the GAA turned down a request to take an advocacy role in favour of the ‘yes’ side despite what was seen as the non-contentious (until 42 per cent voted against it) nature of the proposal.

It was also said to Gough that last summer Palestinian banners were ordered to be taken down during a championship match in Croke Park. At the time that action by stewards was resented by some but how would the same people have felt had Israeli flags been displayed during the match?

Closer to home, the GAA in the early 1980s suffered the turbulence of the H Block hunger strikes – a period described by then director general Liam Mulvihill on his retirement as the worst time of his 28 years in office – and one Ulster official, Gerry Fagan, then Armagh county secretary, cleared H Block protestors off the pitch at half-time saying that they had no right to use the ground for that purpose.

Far more recently Central Council refused permission for an H Block 25th anniversary commemoration in Casement Park but the organisers went ahead anyway, causing profound ill-feeling between Croke Park and Sinn Féin.

Longest shadow

In the great scheme of the GAA’s political entanglements David Gough’s wristband mightn’t cast the longest shadow but it’s important to make a distinction.

The rainbow wristband is more a reflection of an individual’s identity than a statement of political allegiance. It’s unlikely that many wearers of the colours intend to vote no in referendum but that’s not the primary purpose of the rainbow colours and their support for inclusiveness. Making a presumed link between the two creates unfair consequences.

The difficulty here was probably of David Gough’s making albeit not in a malicious way – if anything the scrupulous explanation of his intentions was what obliged the GAA as they saw it to refuse permission to wear the wristband. Should expressions of gay identity and support for inclusiveness be prohibited until May because of the referendum?

If it was Gough’s conflation of the issues of opposing homophobia in sport and the marriage equality issue that created the controversy in the first place, the GAA shouldn’t repeat that mistake and the rainbow wristband should be treated like any other, regardless of debate between now and the national vote. smoran@irishtimes.com

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