By Martin Breheny
DUBLIN – The GAA avoided a serious split at its Special Congress last Saturday by backing out of a vote, calling for the abolition of controversial Rule 21, which precludes members of the RUC and British Army becoming members of the organization.
After almost four hours of debate behind closed doors at Dublin’s Burlington Hotel, the GAA thrashed out a compromise that retains Rule 21 for the present while giving a commitment to delete it “when effective steps are taken to implement the amended structures and policing arrangements envisaged in the British-Irish peace agreement.”
In effect, the GAA has decided to take no action on Rule 21 until such time as major changes have taken place within the RUC. The GAA gave no indication when the Rule 21 issue would be considered again, but the general view afterward was it will not reappear on a Congress agenda for at least three years.
GAA President Joe McDonagh, whose term in office ends in April 2000, is most unlikely to reenter Rule 21 for debate, given the hostile response he encountered to his proposal to lift the ban in the wake of the historic Good Friday settlement.
It was pretty evident in the run-up to the Special Congress that there was no way a proposal for its deletion would receive the required two-thirds majority. Joe McDonagh’s decision to call the Congress so soon after the Good Friday deal angered the Ulster counties. All except Cavan spoke passionately against the idea of removing the ban and it is known that all nine would have voted “no” if the issue was put to a vote.
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Cork also spoke against deletion, as did former presidents Pat Fanning (Waterford) and Con Murphy (Cork), while Peter Quinn urged compromise on the basis that while the GAA should be seen to take a step forward when the time was right, they were under no obligation to do so ahead of the review of policing procedures in the North.
As the afternoon went on, it became increasingly clear that a two-thirds majority of the 295 delegates had no intention of accepting the deletion of Rule 21. A proposal emerged to withdraw the motion while the possibility of suspending Rule 21, while retaining the right to reenter it was also mooted. In the end, following a short adjournment to draft a compromise proposal, it was decided to retain the controversial ban but with a guarantee to delete it if and when a police force acceptable to everybody in Northern Ireland was in place.
Joe McDonagh had invested a great deal of personal energy and effort into moving the GAA toward deleting Rule 21, but the depth of feeling in the North, in particular, was far deeper than anticipated. McDonagh claimed afterward to have been invigorated by the debate and also stressed that the GAA had remained unified.
“The importance of unity has always been a very important aspect in our association’s affairs,” he said. “We have achieved that while at the same time discussing a very emotive and sensitive subject.”
Nevertheless, there can be no denying that the president was deeply disappointed by the outcome. He had tried to bring the association forward in line with the national mood but was told that GAA members weren’t ready for change – certainly not in relation to Rule 21 – just yet.