This week speculation grew that the GAA would lift its controversial ban on members of the British armed forces. For one club Crossmaglen Rangers the question of the ban is far from academic. WILLIE DILLON reports
It's eight o'clock on a quiet Thursday evening in Crossmaglen. A small group of local GAA officials is quietly explaining why the association should not open its ranks to members of the RUC and British army.
The conversation is momentarily drowned out by a loud rumbling noise from above; a military helicopter is flying in low over the clubhouse. The intrusion is so routine that the only person who notices it is me.
A week earlier, the 25-member committee of Crossmaglen Rangers voted unanimously against efforts by the GAA at national level to drop the association's controversial Rule 21.
Unlike the vast majority of GAA people throughout the country, the players and supporters of Crossmaglen live with the British army all the time, despite ceasefires and decommissioning. They believe they are more qualified than most to decide whether the time has yet come to extend the hand of friendship.
In Crossmaglen, armed soldiers still regularly patrol the village, walking backwards with guns at the ready. The perception, says club chairman Eddie Hughes, a bricklayer, is that the number of army and RUC patrols has actually increased since the ceasefires.
These days, Crossmaglen is in full possession of its playing field again. In April 1999, after political efforts at the highest level, the British army finally gave back the portion of the pitch which it occupied since the early 1970s. But a huge army base still towers over the club, from the other side of an ugly perimeter fence, and the level of helicopter activity has not significantly reduced.
The heavily fortified base is reputed to have the most sophisticated watching and listening devices in Europe. We are talking in the club hall which is decorated with photos of Crossmaglen's many national football successes of recent years. The club officials say the army is probably right now eavesdropping on our conversation. They are only half joking. They believe the British forces can hear every dropping pin in every house in the village.
It is in this context, they say, that they do not want the GAA to drop its Rule 21. Their members recall the years of harassment and intimidation by the security forces. Thankfully, nobody in the club was ever killed or injured.
The harassment has waned considerably since the early 1990s. But they still feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea of welcoming members of those same security forces into their club.
There has been no obvious demilitarisation in the area since IRA decommissioning. Team trainer Oliver Short, a schoolteacher, says two very small army lookout posts were taken down 14 miles away. One watchtower was removed at Newtownhamilton army base, 10 miles away. But nothing has changed in Crossmaglen. He estimates there are 22 observations posts within a six-mile radius of the village.
Despite its troubled history, Crossmaglen Rangers is one of Ireland's most successful GAA clubs. It has more than 600 members and 25 teams, from under-eights upwards. In recent years, the senior footballers have dominated the All-Ireland club championship, winning in 1997, 1999 and 2000.
Eddie Hughes says dropping Rule 21 would be tantamount to endorsing the right of British soldiers to walk on Irish soil. Many people in the Republic, including many GAA followers, will be as surprised at this kind of rhetoric as they will be at hearing that armed soldiers still patrol Crossmaglen. But Oliver Short insists they are not making a political statement; neither are they radicals or demons, but sports people trying to articulate a sensible point of view.
If Rule 21 goes, they say they will have been let down by GAA colleagues in the Republic who have little understanding of realities north of the border. Right now, they fully expect to be let down.
In two weeks a special national congress of the GAA will take place at City West in Dublin to decide whether Rule 21 should go. Approximately 300 delegates from all over the country will have a vote. There are more than 2,000 GAA clubs in the country, of which some 600 are north of the border. A two-thirds majority is required if this highly contentious rule is to go.
To the vast majority of GAA followers in the south, Rule 21 is an embarrassment; a little piece of perfectly preserved sectarianism nestling in their constitution. They feel it has long outlived its historical usefulness.
They believe their decision on November 17 will define where the association stands in relation to the peace process. In a changed political landscape, it has to be jettisoned.
Despite the starkly differing perspectives, the GAA up to now has been guided by the views of their northern members. They would know when the time was right to drop Rule 21. But that policy may be about to change.
Many in the south feel the time has come for decisive leadership; that the GAA as a national body must take the initiative and make the political gesture.
The present indications are that the sheer weight of southern numbers will carry the day at the special conference, against the wishes of most northern delegates. The only northern county to support abolition could be Down, which sought as long ago as 1995 to remove Rule 21.
A lot could hinge on southern border counties like Monaghan and Cavan. But at this stage everybody is playing their cards very close to their chest.
Despite their reluctance, most northern GAA followers know Rule 21 has had its day. They just need more time. Eddie Hughes argues that they should wait another six months to a year to see how the new police force works out. He believes that if the people are happy with the new policing arrangements, Rule 21 won't have to be dropped; it will simply evaporate into history.
Almost despite themselves, many northern GAA followers are still unsure and uncomfortable. The past is a hard skin to shed. "There is a general feeling that Rule 21 should be got rid of," says one observer. "But the problem is this is not an issue which people will decide with their heads they will do so with their hearts and their gut feeling.
"The northern counties are more affected it's their players and their officials who get harassed. So many GAA members have suffered at the hands of the security forces over the years. There are a lot of bad memories and open sores."
Fewer clubs have worse memories than Wolfe Tones in Bellaghy in County Derry. Their chairman Sean Brown was murdered in May 1997 while locking up the club premises after a Monday night meeting. The following year, the club grounds were renamed Pairc Sean de Brun.
The experiences of Bellaghy and Crossmaglen have come to symbolise the very real difficulties faced by many northern clubs. Nationally, however, the association is well aware that voting to retain the ban will send out very negative signals. The clear message would be that the GAA is not prepared to embrace the change taking place in the North.
Whether the organisation likes it or not, this is the GAA's decommissioning. In the present political climate, keeping Rule 21 is not a realistic option.
If it stays, the GAA will be seen as stubborn advocates of division at a time when massive strides have been made in the peace process. The association has much to lose in terms of its public image as a sporting organisation.
The progressives within the organisation believe they should have taken the courageous step in 1998 when then president Joe McDonagh, in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, made a bold move to end the ban. Now, at best, they are being seen to move only after everybody else has taken all the risks.
McDonagh urged the GAA to seize the opportunity to make a symbolic gesture for peace. But his efforts provoked fierce opposition from the northern counties and the matter was deferred to a more appropriate time.
This time, current president Sean McCague, who is seen as a much more cautious man than his predecessor, is said to have carefully sounded out the organisation in Ulster before proposing that the matter be brought before the special congress.
As schoolteacher from near the border at Scotstown, County Monaghan, he is considered to have his finger on the northern pulse. GAA headquarters made it clear this week that McCague will be making no public comment before November 17.
Indeed almost nobody in the GAA is prepared to risk publicity at the moment on what is seen as a very emotive and difficult issue. The ironic thing, of course, is that the GAA has nothing to lose, and everything to gain in image terms, by dumping Rule 21.
The reality is that British soldiers and RUC members will not be queueing up to tog out for their local GAA team. One northern commentator has likened it to the Ku Klux Klan having a law which bans black people. Very few blacks will want to join anyway.
A very real dilemma for the GAA is that the new police service of Northern Ireland will attract a greater number of Catholics. The new force will offer good career prospects and pay. It has the approval of both governments, the SDLP and the Catholic Church. Many of these new police recruits might even be members of the GAA already.
Keeping the ban in those circumstances would make the GAA look foolish in the extreme and totally out of step with reality.
Feelings will undoubtedly run high at the GAA special congress. The outcome may be one which the northern delegates won't like. But they may have little choice other than to live with it.