In an extended piece on the RTÉ Radio 1 programme, This Week, last Sunday, on the impact of Brexit on the GAA, the Armagh delegate to the Ulster Council Jarlath Burns said that the GAA should not remain neutral if there is to be a referendum on Irish unity after Brexit.
He said: “The GAA’s basic aim: it 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 presentation and promotion of Gaelic Games.
”That doesn’t make us neutral on the issue of a border poll, it gives us a position on a border poll and a position that I as a GAA member in a border county would like to think that from a logical, as well as an ideological, perspective that the GAA would have a strong position on.”
Jarlath Burns was clear that he was speaking as “an ordinary GAA member”, not as someone who had an executive role.
But he is — without a doubt — a prominent figure within the Association, and the fact that he said what he did about GAA positioning on a border poll ensured that attention was focused on the issue (however briefly).
That he argued that a decision by the GAA to support any referendum that might bring about a ‘32-County Ireland’ was “logical and rational” because of the rules it has enshrined, and the statements contained in its Official Guide is a reasonable point.
After all, on the first page of the GAA’s Official Guide — in a short mission statement — it is claimed that those who play Gaelic games and who run the organisation see the GAA as “a means of consolidating our Irish identity.”
Further, it is presented that the “primary purpose of the GAA” is as “a means to create a disciplined, self-reliant, national-minded manhood.”
Playing Gaelic Games is ‘the expression of a people’s preference for native ways as opposed to imported ones.”
The Official Guide then claims that because of partition, “Ireland’s claim to nationhood is impaired… Today, the native games take on a new significance when it is realised that they have been a part, and still are a part, of the Nation’s desire to live her own life, to govern her own affairs.”
But aspirations are one thing — and rules are altogether another. And so it is that the second rule in the GAA’s constitution — following on from the first which merely formally sets out its name reads: “1.2 Basic Aim: 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.”
Before discussing a border poll, there is a debate to be had here about what the GAA is, what it stands for and what its meaning is for its membership. It is certainly the case that partition and the Troubles have inevitably shaped the nature of the GAA. The reality of that experience across nationalist communities in Northern Ireland cannot be denied. But it would be wrong to imagine that this was a uniform experience. For example, the story of the GAA across rural County Down is clearly not the story of the GAA as experienced in certain enclaves of, say, West or North Belfast.
And that is before you even move to consider the story of people in other counties across Ireland — and in the GAA clubs that thrive on every continent.
There is a misunderstood history of the GAA that once reigned supreme. Put crudely, this history presented the GAA as a movement that was founded to free Ireland, whose membership was devoted to the idea of an independent Ireland, and that without the GAA, Ireland would never have been freed. More to the point, this history excluded the idea that members of other sporting organisations contributed to the independence movement.
More than anything, history was a weapon with which to bludgeon others. Down in Waterford in 1931 — in the middle of a dispute between the GAA and soccer — the chairman of the Waterford GAA County Board, Willie Walsh, asked where the Rugby Union, the Soccer Association or the Hockey Association were on Bloody Sunday in 1920.
He noted that the Black and Tans had not gone to Dalymount Park or Lansdowne Road to look for rebels. Instead, it was at Croke Park that they “performed deeds which shocked the civilized world. They knew friend from foe, and it was an unfailing experience. The Tans did not run into men like the directors and players of Waterford soccer club.”
But, of course, the reality was much more nuanced than that. Not alone did many GAA men fight for the British army before and during the Great War, but so too did many non-GAA sportspeople join and support the IRA.
Ultimately, the creation of this ultra-nationalist history of the GAA demanded a wholesale suppression of inconvenient truths and the invention of alternative facts.
This is not in any way to deny that there were (and are still) people in the GAA who were devoted to the idea of cultural, political and revolutionary nationalism.
There were — and they were many. But the GAA has always been a broad church where people of diverse political sentiment, and none, have been accommodated.
A more fundamental question sits on the matter of identity. When the GAA now talks in its ‘Basic Aim’ rule of ‘the national identity’, what exactly does that mean?
Promotion of Gaelic Games and of the Irish language is a legitimate expression of national identity. It has sustained people and has allowed them to flourish. It is an immense source of pride, manifest in love of play and of place. But it represents a very particular type of Irishness. What happens to those who do not share this version of Irishness? What of those who prefer, say, soccer to Gaelic?
In the past, when the GAA has pressed a narrow version of ‘national identity’ it has ended up in a cul de sac.
For example, in 1938, at precisely the moment when the GAA’s stated vision of Irish identity was in the ascendant, the Association’s president, Pádraig MacNamee, said: “On one point I agree with our critics, and that is when they say that we are intolerant. My only complaint is that we are not half intolerant enough. We, and all Irishmen who value the inheritance of the Gael, must always be intolerant of everything foreign in this country.
Pádraig MacNamee was a principled and decent man who devoted his life to the service of the GAA, and his vision was very much of its time (although not for all members, or maybe even most). And now when you read the GAA’s mission statement on the first page of the Official Guide, the legacy of this past is obvious.
To this end, do the great majority of GAA members agree that their involvement in the GAA is, ultimately, the expression of their preference for native ways over imported ones, as is stated in the Official Guide? Or are they just playing a game that they love for themselves and love for their children? Where does the balance of sentiment lie on these questions?
These are matters that need to be addressed by the GAA before any position is adopted on a border poll.
A border poll, in itself, would ultimately demand an island-wide conversation involving the engagement of every section of society. This is a conversation in which the GAA should engage. But so, also, should the IRFU, the Football Associations (north and south) and all other sporting organisations who wish to contribute.
A final point: the border poll as mooted in the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by the electorate north and south, and by both the Irish and British governments. It is a legitimate aspiration as a means to progress what those who support a 32-County Ireland most desire.
But the Good Friday Agreement begins by referring to the ‘tragedies of the past’, ‘the profound ‘legacy of suffering’ and the importance of remembering those who have died or been injured, and their families.
This is a dedication that requires (among much else) time, patience and infinite wisdom. The GAA in Ulster has made some inroads in outreach programmes and in building community relations. It is not clear how adopting a position on a border poll sits alongside ideas around reconciliation.
It all boils down to a simple question: Whatever about the manner in which the GAA understands its past, what is its vision of the future?
Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at UCD.