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Tipping Point: GAA must avoid a stupid own goal on a Border poll

For its own sake the GAA needs to maintain its instincts for neutrality on divisive issues

Brexit bringing a Border poll on Irish unity closer leaves the GAA with a moral dilemma. It can behave with integrity, do what it says on the tin and officially endorse a united Ireland. Or it can remain doggedly neutral and not score a stupid own goal.

Going Swiss on such dilemmas is rarely edifying. Even Dante once got all Donald Tusk by proclaiming the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who sit on their hands.

But, for its own sake, the GAA as an organisation has to resist the temptation to live up to its own rhetoric.

What it says on the tin is pretty unambiguous. Rule 1.2 states: “The association is a national organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the national identity in a 32 county Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic games and pastimes.”


A pedantic smart arse might quibble about what precisely is meant by a 32 county Ireland since there are 32 counties in Ireland as it is with no reported plans to import a couple more anytime soon.

But no one’s in doubt about what’s meant, just as no one queries what the overwhelming sentiment among the vast majority of the GAA membership would be in the event of any future poll.

That has helped embolden a number of leading figures to urge the organisation to officially endorse the case for unity should a Border poll be called in Northern Ireland.

No less a figure than the Armagh delegate to the Ulster Council, Jarlath Burns, resorted to logic to make the case, pointing to Rule 1.2 as evidence of how the GAA, by definition, can't be neutral on such an issue.

He’s completely right in pointing out how such official aspirations tie in with widespread sentiment. The obvious implication from that is that the GAA should be obligated to live up to its own words. If the integrity of its ambitions mean anything it’s got to put up and not shut up.

It’s both a rational and admirable view to take in many ways. When so much of politics is about expediency it’s refreshing to see such a straightforward desire to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

The irony is how such sincerity mirrors what has backfired so spectacularly throughout this whole Brexit fiasco, where those devoted to the preservation of the United Kingdom have accelerated its potential break-up by adamantly standing over what they say and believe.

Prudent policy

Reluctance by the main unionist party to preserve any wriggle-room in its negotiating position, or publicly adopt any sort of political ambiguity to its weird fundamentalism, does at least have the virtue of consistency.

But it has produced credible predictions of a Border poll being called on Irish unity within the next decade. Such a prospect smacks of a self-indulgent pyrrhic victory for the DUP. And it has produced a scenario with the potential to reveal much of how the GAA both sees itself now and in the future.

The island’s biggest and most important sporting organisation has a history of adopting a Teflon approach to major social and political debates. As an official body it has stayed out of various referendums, even relatively non-controversial matters like the 2012 Children’s Referendum.

Its vast social and cultural influence meant it has come under pressure to take various positions. A reluctance to do so provoked inevitable criticism since, of all sporting bodies on this island, the GAA is obviously about a lot more than just sport. Ultimately caution has proved to be a prudent policy.

The prospect of a Border poll however taps into much of the GAA’s idea of itself as representative of a very specific form of Irish nationalism. If it’s about anything it is the prospect of taking “the national identity” to its ultimate goal.

So recent comments by the GAA president about it being clear where the organisation would stand if a Border poll comes maybe shouldn't be a surprise. In many ways it was a statement of the obvious. And it's not like John Horan didn't keep himself some wriggle-room on the matter either.

However at a time when trust in the political acuity of those at the top everywhere dissolves by the day, such a statement hardly bins the prospect of brass opting to officially live up to their own rhetoric on a particularly visceral topic.

The prospect of any future Border poll presents the GAA with both a headache and an opportunity

For its own sake though, and especially in terms of its long-term future, the GAA needs to maintain its instincts for neutrality.

A lot of us dislike dismissive references to sport being ‘just sport.’ But in relation to something as sensitive as the subject of political unity in Ireland the GAA as a body really does need to be seen to be about ‘just sport’. It needs to examine how doing what it says on the tin has backfired for others.

Pub patriot

Because there are a lot of other aspirations on the official tin, stuff such as the primary purpose of the organisation being to create disciplined, self-reliant, national-minded manhood, and games being an expression of preference for native ways rather than imported ones.

Most of this bombast has long since been binned. But it has a legacy in this self-regarding separatist nonsense about ‘Gaels’ which in turns feeds into a very specific idea of Irish identity that has little or no relevance to so many people who love the national games for their own sake.

The prospect of any future Border poll presents the GAA with both a headache and an opportunity.

It can live up to its own words and in the process confirm the prejudices of its detractors by politically committing to the pub patriot wing of its constituency.

Or it can give integrity a swerve and in the process present itself as an open sporting body with ambitions to include as many as possible.