Belfast Telegraph

D-Day for that controversial Rule 21

GAA chiefs vote on the future of ban

By Mary Fitzgerald

THE plush gilt and red surroundings of the Kingswood Suite at the Citywest hotel in Co Dublin have played host to a multitude of glittering awards ceremonies, product launches and humdrum business conferences.

THE plush gilt and red surroundings of the Kingswood Suite at the Citywest hotel in Co Dublin have played host to a multitude of glittering awards ceremonies, product launches and humdrum business conferences.

Last month Fianna Fail delegates filled the conference room for their annual Ard Fheis and next year it will host the Fine Gael conference.

But today the hotel was expected to bear witness to a slice of GAA history when representatives from GAA county boards north and south of the border took their seats and prepared to vote on the future of Rule 21, the controversial ban which prevents members of the security forces in Northern Ireland joining the association.

Many observers believed the rule, which dates back to the foundation of the GAA in the late 19th century, was going through its death throes.

If all 334 delegates attended the congress today, a two-thirds majority of 223 was needed to ensure Rule 21's deletion from the association's official guide.

Moves to rescind the rule have floundered in previous years. Following campaigns by grassroots members in Down, Sligo, Carlow and Dublin, abolition topped the agenda at the GAA's annual congress in 1995.

But the possibility of firm decision was shelved until a time "when circumstances in the Six Counties call for such action".

During the last debate on Rule 21 in 1998, the GAA pledged to overturn the rule when effective steps were taken to implement structures and policing arrangements outlined in the Good Friday Agreement.

The recent transformation of the RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland has bolstered the opinion among political and religious leaders that the rule is an anachronism which should be consigned to the history books.

There was a belief that there was more to be gained from dropping Rule 21 than keeping it. Grassroots GAA members in the Republic were increasingly seeing the edict as a damaging piece of historical baggage, with some suggesting that retaining the rule could lead to legal action.

'We'll see a police team in six months' UP TO the age of 27, Brian McCargo was a dedicated GAA member. He had represented his local club in Ardoyne at junior, minor and senior levels and had played for Antrim at county level. But that all changed in 1970 when Brian, encouraged by the Hunt Report, decided to join the RUC.

"I remember turning up at the clubhouse soon after joining the RUC. Two officials approached me and told me I had to go. It was an unbelievable blow. The GAA had been a huge part of my life. I had grown up playing for the local team. All of a sudden all that was gone," he says.

"I joined the RUC because I believed it was a step in the right direction and I thought it would make a difference. I felt it was something worth doing and I wanted to stand by that but as a result I had to close the door on a huge chunk of my life. I cried my eyes out when I got home that night."

Brian, now Deputy Assistant Chief Constable for Greater Belfast and still an avid Antrim supporter, will be glad to see Rule 21 abolished.

"All of my friends in the GAA want to see Rule 21 removed and I believe it is the same for the majority of players and supporters. People are embarrassed by it. The ban belongs to the past. Perhaps there was a place for it a long time ago but in our modern society there is no place for discrimination like that," he says.

Brian, believes it is only a matter of time before the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has its own GAA team.

"I would be very surprised if we don't see a PSNI GAA team in a challenge game within six months and that is something I really look forward to," he says.

- Rule 21 traces its history to February 1887 when the newly established GAA introduced a rule denying membership of the association to members of the RIC. The move followed the ban on members playing foreign games which was introduced in 1885 and remained until 1971.

- Rule 21: "Members of the British armed forces and police shall not be eligible for membership of the Association. A member of the Association participating in dances, or similar entertainment, promoted by or under the patronage of such bodies, shall incur suspension of at least three months."

Belfast Telegraph

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