By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Despite the objections of five of the six county boards in Northern Ireland, the GAA voted Saturday to scrap Rule 21, the controversial measure that prevented police and soldiers in Northern Ireland from becoming members.
The historic move after years of anguish and debate was widely welcomed north and south of the border as a gesture of reconciliation and an endorsement of the peace process.
Renewed pressure to scrap the ban emerged after the IRA began decommissioning and the SDLP endorsed the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which replaces the RUC.
The ban had been regarded as sectarian and discriminatory by Protestants and unionists and there was concern it might lead to a legal challenge under equality legislation or EU human rights laws.
However, the anti-lobby contended that it was too early to drop the rule as the new force had yet to prove itself.
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Sinn Fein, which has yet to support the PSNI, opposed lifting the ban.
The move means serving police officers and new recruits from the Catholic community can join the 114-year-old organization and play hurling, football and handball. It is understood that a number of members of the gardai applied to join the PSNI.
There were 333 delegates from all over Ireland and from clubs in Britain and the US entitled to vote at the behind-closed-doors congress meeting in Dublin on Saturday which lasted just over an hour.
A spokesman said the rule was finally dispatched by a show of hands without a count. “It was comfortably above the two-thirds majority needed to delete the rule.”
The congress had been convened by GAA president Sean McCague, from Monaghan, who said the organization remains united and will move forward with confidence.
“You’ve got to realize that what we did was delete an exclusion rule,” McCague said. “We didn’t make any endorsement of a political party, political grouping or police service. We don’t encourage people to join the gardai, but we don’t discourage. We’re neutral, it has nothing to do with us.”
McCague explained that the GAA was vulnerable to a challenge under equality legislation because of the rule. Equally, he was keen to stress that no political pressure had been put on the association to abolish the regulation.
“I can assure you that the taoiseach [Bertie Ahern] did not intervene, nor did any party politician in the south or north of Ireland. The decision was taken by us ourselves without any outside interference. Those who were against the removal of the rule are honorable people who will accept the views of the majority.”
Ahern, a strong supporter of the GAA, warmly welcomed the decision, saying he knew it had been a difficult one for some people.
“There have been many divergent views on this issue, but I believe the association has conducted the debate in the most democratic way possible,” he said. “I want to salute delegates for their vision.”
He said the dropping of the ban was consistent with a new beginning and promoting reconciliation and tolerance in Northern Ireland.
Rule 21 dates from 1897, when there were suspicions that Royal Irish Constabulary spies were trying to infiltrate the organization.
The ban was rescinded in 1900 but reintroduced in 1903.
Five of the six county GAA boards in Northern Ireland — Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone — had been mandated to oppose the scrapping of the rule. Only County Down was in favor.
But there was a groundswell in favor of change among the 26 county boards south of the border.
The 800,000-member GAA, with 2,500 clubs throughout Ireland, has been a mainstay of nationalist culture.
Its basic aim is the “strengthening of national identity in a 32 county Ireland through preservation and promotion of Gaelic game and pastimes.”
Three years ago, in the wake of the signing of the Good Friday agreement, a special congress called by former GAA President Joe McDonagh to consider Rule 21 failed to ditch it.
Apart from banning the “British armed forces and police” from membership, Rule 21 also said “a member of the association participating in dances, or similar entertainment, promoted by or under the patronage of such bodies, shall incur suspension for at last three months.”
In 1971, the GAA abolished another controversial ruled that banned members from playing “foreign” games like soccer and rugby.