Because of its support for Irish culture and a platform that calls for a 32-county Ireland (including the six counties that currently form Northern Ireland), the GAA has often been a target for Unionist rhetoric. "They use us to criticize Nationalist groups," says Peter Quinn, the president of the GAA. "You can be nonpolitical and nonsectarian without losing your support for national identity." But Quinn is wrong: In Northern Ireland, everything is political and sectarian, especially support for national identity.
To keep its games purely Irish, in 1885 the GAA adopted Rule 27. The rule came to be known as "the Ban," and it prohibited anyone who had ever "played, attended or helped to promote rugby, soccer, hockey or cricket" from playing Gaelic games. The Ban was violated frequently: Armstrong often played soccer on Saturdays and Gaelic football on Sundays. Still the rule remained on the books until 1971. "The Ban was brought in for ideological reasons," says Michael Feeney, secretary of the Ulster GAA. "Gaelic football had peasant origins, and when it went to the upper classes it was looked down upon. We saw that what was more democratic was more accepted."
The lifting of the Ban didn't exactly unleash a stampede of Protestants wanting to play Gaelic football. The Protestants who do play Gaelic sports in the North do so primarily in the rural areas, where, as Feeney says, "they don't have to look over their shoulder all the time." But the end of the Ban meant that Gaelic football players could play soccer, too. Three members of last year's Ireland World Cup team were once Gaelic football players. None of the three, however, is from the North, which has its own World Cup team.
The GAA still forbids members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army from playing in Gaelic games. "They have political associations, and we do not," Quinn says.
There are no rules about who may watch a Gaelic football match, but there might as well be. Protestants, by and large, do not go to Gaelic football matches. Jonathan Smyth, one of the Protestant boys in Ballymacarrett, says, "We'd get our heads bashed if we went to a Gaelic game."
The GAA thought that when it lifted the Ban and allowed everyone to play both Gaelic and "foreign" games, state schools would begin to teach Gaelic games, but that hasn't happened. Quinn says, "It would be wasted effort to go to Protestant schools now; the Protestant community has been subjected to a sustained anti-GAA feeling by politicians. We need gradual exposure."
So to expose people to Gaelic games, the GAA has turned to television. In 1990 the association started a two-year, $50,000 deal with the British Broadcasting Corporation to televise the Gaelic football championship. For years the BBC showed mostly English sports to its viewers in Northern Ireland. Now the Gaelic football championship is televised along with the rugby championship. The contract expires at the end of this year, and there is competition between the BBC and Ulster TV for the new contract.
The religion of the next GAA president may do more for the popularity of Gaelic games than any TV program. There has been a pattern in the GAA that the runner-up in the race for president wins the next election three years later. Jack Boothman, whom Quinn defeated last April, is a member of the Church of England. If pattern holds, the next president of the GAA, that guardian of Irish culture, will be a Protestant.
So far, foreign team sports seem to have escaped sectarianism. Basketball and American football are played by Protestants and Catholics alike, often on the same teams. "A lot of kids are interested in American football for the very reason that it has no previous identification," says John Herron, who grew up in a Protestant area of East Belfast and has worked to integrate Belfast schools for the last four years.
That doesn't mean that Nationalists and Unionists don't pick sides. A physical education teacher at a Belfast school was playing in a basketball game at a recreation center in a Protestant area when a group of Unionist thugs piled into the stands. The five players on the floor for the teacher's team happened to be Catholic, but they were wearing orange uniforms. Their opponents, Protestants from Queen's University, were wearing green jerseys. The hecklers in the crowd began yelling for the orange-clad Catholics to "beat the green bastards." They were a little mixed up, but at least their hearts were in the wrong place.