In October 1989 the Secretary of State (Peter Brooke) asked for advice on whether he might attend “a Gaelic sporting event”. His private secretary was concerned that British ministers in the NIO attending rugby matches in Dublin and never turning up at GAA games was viewed as “a sign of continued unwillingness … to recognise the traditions of the minority community”.
An NIO official with an interest in GAA sports wrote a note encouraging him to proceed.
On balance I strongly recommend that he should. Gaelic sports are an important manifestation of the life of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. (I speak as an expert, having seen Co Tipperary beat Co Mayo At Camogie, and having played one of the less painful sports myself in my youth!)
There are difficulties however.
Difficulties listed included security concerns at some locations and “the involvement in Gaelic sports of the extremist Republican element”. And then there was the “rule in the Constitution of the Gaelic Athletics Association excluding members of the security forces”, a rule which “goes back to the year dot, and is of course a symbol of just those divisions in Northern Ireland society which we would like to break down”.
I am sure that the way to break them down is to go ahead, not to wait for the GAA Constitution to be amended.
It’s not clear whether the Secretary of State did attend in 1989. However, to encourage him, a letter from the British Ambassador to Ireland describing a recent hurling match was attached to the briefing.
The correspondence has been released today under the 20 Year Rule and can be viewed in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. [PDF of the briefings/letters mentioned in this post.]
Attending GAA events was clearly a matter of importance in British-Irish relations. A Junior Minister at the NIO declined to attend the Tipperary v Antrim hurling final seven weeks earlier.
“Dr [Brian] Mawhinney preferred not to do so and had in any case a previous engagement” noted diplomat Nicolas Fenn who was minded to attend himself.
In a letter to his Foreign & Commonwealth Office boss in London the British Ambassador in Dublin explained:
The NIO was sceptical and the FCO helpfully agnostic (not an invitation to further theological debate!).
We telephoned the GAA and asked if I might attend … After three days of horrified silence they produced a courteous letter of invitation and four complimentary tickets.
There was a reason for the three days of silence.
I learn (from the improbable source of the Leader of the Irish Labour Party [Dick Spring]) that the GAA were thrown into confusion by our approach. Although one of my predecessors […] had been a regular and enthusiastic patron of hurling, there was no record of a British Ambassador attending since that time. Some members of the Cumann had objected in principle: others had not wished to snub me; others again had simply thought why shouldn’t he come? Mr Spring said that the question had been referred for resolution by the Taoiseach!
Good to know that the Taoiseach had such authority over a sporting body!
In the end, the diplomat attended the Tipperary vs Antrim hurling final at Croke Park on Sunday 3 September and he included a short match report in his letter to London. Spring later told Fenn that “some of the GAA feared that I would seek to present myself as the Ambassador for Antrim”.
Hurling is a fast and exciting game and it was played with great skill (otherwise people would have got killed!). Antrim were no match for Tipperary and were outclassed from the beginning … But Antrim never gave up.
There was activity of note off the pitch too.
Two demonstrators climbed to the roof of one of the stands and displayed a long banner inscribed in English and Irish “No Extradition”.
While his attendance at the Saffron’s match attracted little publicity other than a photograph in the Irish Press, the presence of Neil Kinnock (then Labour leader and leader of the Opposition) was “in all the morning papers” ensuring “Irishmen know that there was a British interest in their hurling final”.
He concluded his two page match summary saying:
a marker has been [put down and a precedent established and one more small Anglo-Irish barrier has been broken.