Rule 21: The GAA’s Dry Run for Sinn Fein
le Breandan O Muirthile
Amidst all the reaction to the recent decision of the GAA to abolish Rule 21 and thereby enable the admission of members of the ‘security forces’ in the north of Ireland, what I found most striking was ‘the dog that didn’t bark’. I refer to the remarkably muted reaction of Sinn Fein to the GAA’s decision.
The GAA is one of the pillars of Irish society. It is organised in probably every parish in the country as well as among the diaspora and has a tremendous loyalty among ordinary people across the island. Not only a sporting organisation, the GAA is an explicitly nationalist one as per its constitution. If anybody doubts the nationalist nature of the GAA they only have to look at the number of Gaels who have passed through the prison system over the last thirty years of struggle. It would be a fairly safe bet to say that the membership of the GAA in the north would contribute substantially to the backbone of the Sinn Fein vote, given the emphasis which the GAA places on promoting a pride in Irish national self-identity.
It is therefore a matter of no small significance when such an organisation effectively grants its (reluctant) approval to the ‘new’ (sic.) policing arrangements in the north, thereby bestowing a legitimacy on the PSNI, a force which SF continues (so far) to reject and to which AP/RN refers as RUC/PSNI.
Yet SF had practically nothing to say when Rule 21 was deleted, other than Adams noting that five of the six counties had voted against deletion. Both Adams and an editorial in AP/RN were keen to emphasise the need for people to rally around the GAA and to preserve unity, which is an admirable objective in itself, since nobody wishes to see the fracturing of the organisation.
The reason for this is clear. The SF leadership knows that it is only a matter of time before they decide to take their seats on the Policing Boards. They will have to sell this to the republican base, which has suffered much at the hands of the RUC. The GAA’s move has paved the way for the inevitable SF decision. When it comes the leadership will be able to point to the GAA’s example. Furthermore, in exactly the same way that Adams noted the vote of the five counties against deletion then emphasised the need to maintain unity, the leadership will ‘allow’ members of the republican base to ineffectually let off steam at the leadership decision, but will call upon them to preserve unity at all costs, precisely as they have done over the beginning to decommissioning.
If anybody doubts the inevitability of this move, they only need to trace the movement away from the rejection of any six-county police force, to the call to completely disband the RUC, to the full implementation of Patten, and finally to the current demand for a ‘new beginning to policing’. With a few more cosmetic changes to the police SF will feel able to sell participation in the Policing Boards, no doubt arguing that the boards have the capacity to be ‘transitional’ to an entirely new policing service.
Since the de facto legitimacy of the state is accepted in practice it is then only a matter of time until the legitimacy of all of the institutions of that state are also accepted, including the state police. From that point it is only a small step to endorse and co-operate with the police in every respect, the implications of which do not need to be spelt out.