Wednesday 21 February 2018

GAA should not have blocked Gough's gesture

GAA Referee David Gough wore a rainbow wrist-band in support of the ‘Yes’ campaign
GAA Referee David Gough wore a rainbow wrist-band in support of the ‘Yes’ campaign
John Greene

John Greene

In 1966, the Easter Rising's 50th anniversary was a big deal in a country still finding its way. Croke Park was at the centre of the week-long commemoration, the highlight of which was, for many, an elaborate show with a cast of over 800 detailing the Irish political struggle from 1798 to 1919.

According to Tim Carey's history of the stadium, the Irish Press said the pageant aroused "feelings of rebellion and joy". The writer added: "This was a feeling I believe everyone in the audience, even in the teeth of the bitter cold, felt here and held until Pearse's forced surrender."

Last week it emerged that the stadium - greatly changed as it is from then - will again be part of the 1916 commemoration next April. This caused barely a ripple because to most people, even those with no involvement or interest in the GAA's activities, Croke Park's connection to Irish history is deep. It is one of the great symbols of Irish independence, for an older generation which remembers it as it was, and a newer breed who see its modern-day splendour and understand the achievement this represents.

Whether it likes it or not, the GAA is a political organisation. It doesn't have to take political positions but it cannot ignore its own place in Irish history, and by extension, Irish political life. The two intertwine to the point where they are often blurred. The GAA's nationalist origins made it this way, but this is not something fixed in the distant past.

The following exchange, recalled in The GAA: A People's History, is between members of the House of Commons in June 1893:

Mr TW Russell: Everyone knew that the Gaelic Athletic Clubs in Ireland were political associations in everything but in name; and in a month they could be armed and would become an effective force.

An hon. Member: Bosh!

Another hon. Member: They are football clubs.

Mr TW Russell: said, nominally football clubs, these associations were the successors of the Fenians.

In his book, The Bloodied Field, Michael Foley writes: "Although it adopted an apolitical stance in public, the GAA's very genesis was rooted in nationalism. O'Toole [Luke O'Toole, General Secretary] privately saw Sinn Fein as the way forward."

But the GAA's inherently nationalist position remained intact right through the next 100 years - and still pervades. Anti-internment rallies were held in GAA grounds in the North, but support extended far beyond that, especially when members were killed and club property destroyed in The Troubles.

During the 1980 hunger strike in the Maze prison, the DUP's Peter Robinson attacked the GAA, labelling it a "so-called sporting organisation". He said that it had been a "sad and sorry spectacle on our television screens . . . to see the banners and flags of the GAA in the forefront of the protest being carried out on behalf of the murderers and gunmen in the Maze prison in Belfast."

Even when Croke Park was opened up to soccer and rugby in 2007, who can deny that the emotional fervour whipped up around the England game in the Six Nations did not have strong political roots?

So much has happened in the stadium through its history. Was not the visit of the Queen a political event of sorts? Or the American football match in 1953 in which all the players were US soldiers based in England? Then there were the religious events, the Mass for the Patrician Year in 1961, monster Pioneer rallies in the 1940s and '50s, the Eucharistic Congress three years ago . . .

The point is that the GAA itself cannot escape politics, but where once its members may all have generally fitted a typical profile - nationalist and Catholic - it is now a much broader church. It has over half a million members worldwide from many different ethnic, religious and political backgrounds. The GAA embraces and celebrates them as members and it is not a betrayal of its ethos to also embrace freedom of expression within that. The GAA doesn't have to be overtly political in any way - indeed it even has a rule prohibiting it from being party political or from being part of a party political movement - but it should not be afraid to watch on while its members are. Even if it's in Croke Park, or anywhere else connected to the Association for that matter. We know that Croke Park, in particular, has a deep political resonance.

Which is why it has been great to see GAA players express their views on the same-sex marriage referendum. And why it was great to see the GPA show maturity and independence last week by doing likewise. And to see that Rory O'Carroll won't be sanctioned for his gesture of support after last Sunday's League final.

And why the GAA should have stood back and allowed top referee David Gough to proceed with his own small gesture - wearing a rainbow wrist-band in support of the 'Yes' campaign during a league match in early March. The threats made to Gough were inappropriate, and belonging to a different era. His desire to support the referendum posed no threat to the GAA, or to its rules. His gesture, had he been allowed to proceed, would have shown to all the fantastic, all-encompassing organisation the GAA can be.

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