The article itself focussed on a Provisional republican march which took place in Belfast on December 6th 1980. According to the Andersontown News at the time approximately 3,000 members of the Association marched along the Falls Road to Casement Park where they listened to a speech delivered by PSF Vice President Gerry Adams in support of the anti-H-Block/Armagh campaign. Sound familiar? It should. The event instantly reminded me of that infamous gathering at the same venue back in 2006 when thousands of people defied Rules 7 (a) and 44 of the GAA constitution by gathering at Casement Park to mark the 25th anniversary of the hunger strike. Incidentally, Rule 7 (a) is that law in the Association’s rulebook which stipulates that the organisation is “non-party political” while Rule 44 stipulates that facilities “shall be used only for the purpose of or in connection with the playing of the Games controlled by the Association.” The gathering of December 1980 was, therefore, clearly in breach of that rule. The assembly a quarter of a century later at Casement Park was once more an obvious violation of the organisation’s constitution. Still, given the bad publicity which nationalists received following the August 2006 event you would have thought that they would have been doing their best to avoid a repeat of this unfortunate episode, wouldn’t you?
Well, sadly not for as anyone following the local news here in recent days will no doubt have noticed yet another row has erupted between Sinn Fein and, well, basically everyone else in Ireland over the use of a GAA ground for blatantly political reasons. The storm centres around the use of Galbally GFC’s pitch in Tyrone for the Provo’s National Hunger Strike Commemoration in which, according to An Phoblacht, “as many as 10,000 people joined with representatives of the families of the 1981 Hunger Strikers as they marched through Galbally, the birthplace of Martin Hurson, to a rally at Piarsaigh an Ghallbhaile GAA grounds.”
Distasteful as this lethal cocktail of sport and politics is it was made all the more revolting by the presence of men wearing paramilitary gear, balaclavas and carrying replica assault rifles, a photo of which can be seen at the top left hand side of this page. Sinn Fein have responded by dismissing these images as examples of nothing other than mere “street theatre”, however this is to miss the point completely. I am not for one moment suggesting that the people behind the masks were little more than wannabe hardmen and rebel song-loving culchie geeks out to get that same sort of thrill from seventies terrorist gear that similar oddballs in other parts of the world get from throwing on some Waffen SS kit. No, what I find objectionable is the whole bloody thing - the very concept of any GAA ground being used for this purpose. The guys pretending to be gunmen are only a part of it so lets not focus on them too much or start to think that if only they had been taken out of the equation that this commemoration would have been acceptable. It was not. As well as this, I simply do not believe any republican out there that says they cannot see the harm in what took place. If they seriously cannot understand how some members of our community would not be offended by their little piece of “street theatre” then they are either lying or are exceedingly dim.
Let us also not permit the spectre of DUP goon and Sinn Fein’s Stormont coalition partner Nelson McCausland to distract us from the seriousness of the Galbally incident, as some nationalists seem to be attempting to do. Just because one of the most hideous manifestations of old fashioned sectarian unionism has been the most vocal critic in his camp in relation to what happened last weekend does not make my or anyone else’s opposition to the Tyrone commemoration any less valid. Nor does Barry McElduff’s claim that club premises in the Republic have been used in recent times for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael gatherings make the Provo commemoration any more justifiable. The rulebook cannot state it any clearer than it already does: non-party political. That rule must be upheld regardless of whether the people in question are Fianna Failers, Blueshirts, Shinners or Stickies.
The GAA must now act swiftly to make sure that this does not happen again. Back in 2006 they punished the organisers of the mini-Nuremburg event at Casement Park by refusing to make tickets available to senior Sinn Fein members for that year’s All-Ireland football and hurling finals. Oh, how the Ard Comhairle must have chuckled that day. This time Headquarters has to display some balls and show that it will not tolerate the flaunting of its rules by anyone and if that means suspensions or expulsions then so be it.
I do not want to sign off on an entirely negative note though. I should perhaps say at this stage that I am extremely proud of the GAA. It is one of this island’s great institutions. On September 22nd 2002 it provided me with one of the greatest day’s of my life. It is, like the National Health Service and the credit union movement, an example of socialism in action. It is a peoples collective. To quote Tom Humphries of the Irish Times, when the “newspaper says the GAA cleaned up X million from a weekend of lucrative fixtures you know that's fine. Liam Mulvihill doesn't have a diamond earring and a cocaine habit. There's no new bling bling coming to some spoilt millionaire superstar. The money percolates. It buys coaches, development schemes, clubhouses, and a huge chunk of it goes back into county teams.”
Founded by the children of the Great Famine, this Association has survived the Home Rule crisis, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War, two World Wars, recessions, depressions and the northern Troubles. It will no doubt survive the hiccup triggered by the actions of a few halfwits in Galbally. Yet for all its achievements it remains flawed. The precise nature of these flaws and how they would be best addressed is a topic for another day, but until the GAA addresses them we can expect another Casement-style incident at some point in the future.
Liam Cassidy’s article in the February 1981 issue of Workers Life featured an interview with Tom Woulfe, then a senior figure in the Dublin GAA. The piece included a quote from Woulfe regarding what he, and I, consider as one of the Association’s flaws, namely the nature of its membership:
Let us not indulge in massive self-deception. The GAA includes practically nobody of the religious minority in this country - the minority which, by and large, coincides with the political majority in the north. It even excludes a significant section of the majority as well. Accordingly the co-religionists of Tone, Emmet, Davis, Mitchell and Parnell are outside the GAA. If anyone says to me - and some have said it - ‘Let them come in on our terms and if they don’t let them stay out,’ my reply is that my vision of Ireland is the Ireland of Tone and Davis and I do not say let them stay out. I want them in. They are my countrymen. Let them who will differ from me at least have the grace to refrain from quoting Tone and Davis.
Those words were uttered back in 1965. A lot has changed since then yet almost half a century on there are still many in the ranks of the GAA that could learn a lot from the words of Tom Woulfe. The unity of Protestant, Catholic and dissenter remains an honourable goal. It will not, however, be achieved by displays of the crude macho brand of sectarian nationalism witnessed in Galbally on Sunday.