HC Deb 14 July 1982 vol 27 cc1145-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

11.54 pm
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry)

The Minister will be aware that I tabled questions on two occasions to seek information on the amount of money paid to the Gaelic Athletic Association from public funds in Northern Ireland. The first question was answered on 7 July 1980 and the second—by sheer chance—on 7 July 1982.

As a result of those questions, I discovered that between 10 June 1962 and 31 March 1980, the GAA benefited from public funds to the extent of £330,682. For the second period, a further £243,427 was paid to it. The grants from the Department of Education in the period June 1962 to March 1982 totalled £520,000, and in general were for pavilions and the purchase of pitches and equipment. The Sports Council gave a further £4,453 for equipment, and the rest, £48,741, also came from the Sports Council for administration, training, coaching and travel costs. As well as this, the GAA has benefited from various summer schemes and the provision of pitches organised and provided by councils.

These sums were all paid because successive Governments have decided to treat the GAA as a normal sporting and recreational body that carries out useful work in those areas and is, therefore, worthy of support. That Government perception is not shared by anyone in Northern Ireland who knows anything whatever about the organisation. The general perception there is of an organisation that exists primarily for a political purpose and that it is using its sporting ventures as an ancillary to forward that political purpose.

The Minister must surely be aware of the bitter reactions that are aroused among those who are opposed to the GAA's political objectives whenever and wherever it tries to establish its presence. It will try establish its presence at every opportunity, whether or not it is welcome in the area.

I accept that there is no point in my making such allegations against this organisation unless I am prepared to submit evidence to support my contentions. As evidence from sources hostile to the GAA would, I believe, not be acceptable to the Government, I shall in the main confine myself to what is obtainable from its own official sources.

First, I refer to revised rules 1 to 32 of the official guide, in which the GAA charter states: The name of the Association shall be 'The Gaelic Athletic Association' … The Association is a National Organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the National Identity in a 32 county Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic games and pastimes … The Association further seeks to achieve its objectives through the active support of Irish culture, with a constant emphasis on the importance of the preservation of the Irish language and its greater use in the life of the nation; and, in the development of a community spirit, to foster an awareness and love of the national ideals in the people of Ireland … The membership and resources of the Association shall be utilised for and dedicated solely to the foregoing aims". Clearly, the GAA sees those aims as being fulfilled only in a united Ireland outside the United Kingdom, and it seeks that as its first objective, for the membership and resources of the association are in the first instance used and dedicated to that political objective.

Rule 9 states that the Irish language is to be used whenever and wherever it is possible to use it.

Rule 15 discriminates against persons on the grounds of nationality and job. It states: British soldiers, navy men, and police shall not be eligible for membership of the Association". That rule was originally drawn up in 1884, so the Royal Air Force is excluded because it did not exist at that time.

The rule continues: A member of the Association participating in dances or similar entertainments, promoted by or under the patronage of such bodies, shall incur suspension for at least 3 months". There is a coercive force behind the ban, and that is applied to the general public who are admitted to the association.

Rule 31 prohibits all other games in grounds under the control of the GAA.

There I end my quotations from the revised rules, which were published on 22 May 1971. The official guide that preceded them is a much larger document—

Mr. James Molyneautx (Antrim, South)

The authorised version.

Mr. Ross

As my hon. Friend says, it was the authorised version. It was published in 1966. It is a comprehensive document and if the Minister has not yet managed to procure a copy, no doubt he will do so and read it later.

The document starts by saying that there are legions of voluntary workers willing to make sacrifices to promote the association's ideals and carry out its daily purpose. It asks why it receives this unselfish support. This sections continues: Those who play its games, those who organise its activities and those who control its destinies see in the GAA a means of consolidating our Irish identity. The games to them are more than games—they have a national significance—and the promotion of native pastimes becomes a part of the full national ideal … The primary purpose of the GAA is the organisation of native pastimes and the promotion of athletic fitness as a means to create a disciplined, self-reliant, national-minded manhood … Since she has not control over all the national territory, Ireland's claim to nationhood is impaired. This is a threat used throughout the whole of not only the association but republicanism in Ireland in general. To-day, the native games take on a new significance when it is realised that they have been a part, and still are a part, of the nation's desire to live her own life, to govern her own affairs. Those who are unaware of the conditions that called the GAA into being, and of the national significance that attaches to the native games may be forgiven if, to them, one game is as good as another. But those who know our country's history and understand the role that the GAA has played in it will see that, until complete nationhood is achieved, the Association must continue to maintain an all-embracing patriotic spirit … This national side of the GAA and its dedication to the ideal of an Irish-Ireland must be kept to the forefront at all times. To the youth of Ireland, a knowledge of the circumstances in which the GAA was founded, of the part it played in the years before the Rising of 1916, of the share its members had in the fight for freedom, is merely knowledge of their own inheritance and should not be withheld from them. Such knowledge would mark out the native games as more than mere games and would show that the Association which promotes them has had, and still has, a strong influence for National good. Had we but more time, I could spend an hour at least on the short section that I have already read, to explain what it means in an Irish context. I only wish that there were more hon. Members here to understand it.

On page 15 of the same paper, it says: MICHAEL CUSACK conceived in the Association a powerful bulwark against the inroads of alien influences and ideas of existence. He was the uncompromising champion of all distinctive Gaelic traditions, institutions and cultural possessions and fashioned the GAA as a future army of resurgent Gaeldom. Dr. Croke is mentioned. It says: Dr. Croke realised the immense moral benefits to be gained by organisation and discipline and as an advocate of national independence, he saw in those self-disciplined ranks an invaluable force for the attainment of that long-sought goal. Dr. Croke was the patron of the association and was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cashel and Emly. This is the letter that he wrote on 18 December 1884, and there is no reason to suppose that the Gaelic association and those who support it have changed their attitude in the intervening 98 years. He says: One of the most painful, let me assure you, and, at the same time, one of the most frequently recurring reflections that, as an Irishman, I am compelled to make in connection with the present aspect of things in this country, is derived from the ugly and irritating fact, that we are daily importing from England, not only her manufactured goods, which we cannot help doing, since she has practically strangled our own manufacturing appliances, but, together with her fashions, her accents, her vicious literature, her music, her dances, and her manifold mannerisms, her games also, and her pastimes, to the utter discredit of our own grand national sports, and to the sore humiliation, as I believe, of every genuine son and daughter of the old land. Ball-playing, hurling, football-kicking according to Irish rules, 'casting', leaping in various ways, wrestling, handy-grips, top-pegging, leap-frog, rounders, tip-in-the hat, and all such favourite exercises and amusements amongst men and boys may now be said to be not only dead and buried, but in several localities to be entirely forgotten and unknown. And what have we got in their stead? We have got such foreign and fantastic field sports as lawn tennis— I wonder what Mr. Connors and Mr. McEnroe would think of that— polo"— I wonder what His Royal Highness would think of that— croquet, cricket and the like". I understand that recently the SDLP chairman of Magherafelt council refused to allow a message of congratulations to be sent to the Northern Ireland soccer team on the ground that it was playing a foreign game. That demonstrates that that attitude still underlies the whole approach of the GAA.

There is much more that I could say, but I must not detain the House. No doubt the Under-Secretary will read the words of Dr. Croke: there is something rather pleasing to the eye in the get-up of a modern young man, who arrayed in light attire, with particoloured cap on and a racquet in hand, making his way, with or without a companion, to the tennis ground. Evidently he did not think much of tennis or any other such game.

Rule 10 on page 39 demands that the Irish flag be displayed at all matches. It mentions the national flag, but it means the tricolour. That proclaims the right to rule over a 32-county Ireland and it is the rejection of this House and the Queen's writ. Even if the House does not understand that, the people of Northern Ireland do. That is why the concept of flying the tricolour at Gaelic games rouses such fury in the heart and mind of the ordinary Ulster citizen.

Rule 27 on page 53 provides: Any member who plays, attends, or helps to promote Rugby, Soccer, Hockey, or Cricket thereby incurs automatic suspension from membership of the Association. Rule 28 provides that the chairman has the right to appoint vigilante members to visit centres within the County, Province, or area … where excluded games and entertainments are held and to report to the Officer responsible … the attendance of members of the Association". That rule has been modified, but the ethos remains. Rule 29 on page 54 provides: A Council, Committee, or Club shall not organise any entertainment at which foreign dances are permitted. No Club or Club Committee shall hold a dance, until it shall have submitted its programme to the County Committee, and until it has been approved of by them. The penalty for a breach of the rules is, of course, suspension.

Rule 42 on page 61 provides: County committees shall have power to confine membership of clubs to the parish in which players reside or work. That is the parish under the jurisdiction of a parish priest. It is a sectarian rule, although it may not appear so on the surface. The boundaries used are those of the Roman Catholic Church's parishes. Rule 82 provides that Sunday play, which is obnoxious to so many in Northern Ireland, is one of the criteria for the playing of finals in Dublin. It does not matter where the games are played; the fact that the rules are specific on that point is sufficient to raise many hackles in Ulster.

Rule 88 states: For inter-county games each Minor and Under-21 Championship player shall procure an authenticated parochial certificate of age. That is also a sectarian rule, because it refers to the Roman Catholic parochial certificate of age. Rule 110 on page 55 provides that meetings of the governing body shall take place on Sundays—again violating many of the standards of Sunday observance in Northern Ireland.

The only implication of all those rules is that my contention that political objectives are paramount for the GAA is correct, as is my contention that it discriminates against persons on grounds of nationality and the jobs that they do.

The right of the GAA to be treated as a normal sporting and recreational body was challenged by Magherafelt district council. The council lost the case, but only, I am advised, on a narrow point of law. The action was raised under section 19 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, which covers discrimination by public authorities. It is followed up by section 23 of the Act. I shall not weary the Minister by reading it all. I am sure that in his preparation for the debate he has considered the case in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.

Section 19 of the 1973 Act is weaker than the Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order and the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Act 1976, both of which contain express provisions against indirect discrimination. Section 19 covers only direct discrimination by the governing body. I hope that the Minister will read all the rules soon because I do not wish him to rely only on my words, as the Secretary of State did recently in relation to false reports fed to him about Linfield football club. But if he reads the rules and has heard what I say tonight, I hope that the Minister will refuse further grants to the Gaelic Athletic Association.

Judge Murray found for Purvis in the case against Magherafelt district council on the ground that the coaching scheme dropped by the council was not a direct subsidy to the Gaelic Athletic Association because it involved rental. The gist of the judge's remarks was that if a coaching scheme directly aided the Gaelic Athletic Association—if the council had proposed to hand over a substantial sum of money to the association to enable it to run a scheme—because of the continued existence of rule 15, the point made by the council's counsel would have been formidable. The point raised by the council's solicitor was that the rent paid to the GAA for a GAA pitch was subsidising a discriminatory body. The judge held that such a rent was a straightforward commercial, economic, transaction and the council failed to maintain its case.

Judge Murray seems to have concluded that, as the quesion of subsidy did not arise, the council had to proceed with its scheme. However, the grants about which we are talking tonight are a direct subsidy to the GAA—the very point that the judge brought to the Government's attention. But the Government of the day did not follow up the matter.

The Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 prohibits any public authority from discriminating against any person or class of persons on grounds of religious belief or political opinion. There have been decisions in American courts on cases of racial discrimination that could be called in aid if the Government decided to challenge the GAA's right to grants. Those cases, which went to the Supreme Court, said that a Government body could not allow indirect discrimination where it would not be allowed to discriminate indirectly.

The GAA provides facilities to its members for the playing of Gaelic sports and rule 15 prohibits those who serve in the Army, Navy and police force from becoming members. That is political discrimination, as can be seen clearly in the context of the other rules. In the light of that, the provision of State funds to the association is unlawful as long as it retains rule 15.

My objections are not to the games played by the GAA. I play no game, I support no game and I support no team. I care little whether players carry, catch, kick, throw or hit a ball, or whether they go hang-gliding or parachute jumping. It is up to them. I ask only that it is done with some respect for other people's views and attitudes.

My objections are to the motives behind the games played by the GAA. It promotes a series of games and sports not for the sake of the game or the enjoyment of the players. The atmosphere is completely different from that experienced at international soccer, rugby or cricket matches, or even in the World Cup soccer matches, despite the emotional outpourings to which we have been subjected on our television screens recently.

All support from public funds should cease forthwith, and let the GAA take the Government to court for discrimination in an effort to get it back. It is far better to spend the cash on restoring such things as swimming lessons for children who have been deprived of them. That at least might save some of their lives. That would be far better than subsidising an organisation which is master race motivated, discriminatory, bigoted and anti-British.

12.14 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Nicholas Scott)

Unlike the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross), I play a number of sports. I must say that I feel a little like a cricket captain who is now faced with a declaration with little time left in which to make the necessary runs to secure victory.

I start by dealing with the money given to GAA clubs. It is important to see the grants in perspective. Between 1962 and 1982, the GAA received a total of £445,000 in grant. To put that into perspective, in the year 1980–81—the latest year for which figures were readily available—the Department of Education made grants totalling about £5.5 million to district councils for the provision of sport and recreation facilities. The grant received by the GAA was about 9 per cent. of the total grants that were made to voluntary sporting clubs by the Department—not the total amount of grants that were made, but the limited amount of money that was given to voluntary sporting clubs.

I accept many of the hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the rules of the GAA, but we should remember that the payment of grants to assist GAA clubs and other voluntary sports clubs with restricted membership—there are many sports clubs in Northern Ireland that restrict their membership in one way or another—dates from a decision taken by the Stormont Government in 1959 which, in turn, led to the enactment of the Youth Welfare, Physical Training and Recreation Act (Northern Ireland) 1962. So this is not something that has suddenly occurred or something that has resulted from direct rule or from decisions taken by this Government; it stems from decisions that were taken by the Stormont Administration well before the enactment of direct rule.

In many ways I find the rules and aims of the GAA, the claims that it makes, the nature of the restrictions imposed, and the nature of the rules that it makes for those sports, repugnant, and in particular rule 15, which refers to British policemen and members of the Army and Navy. It is entirely alien to the attitude of sportsmen in Ireland as a whole and sportsmen in Northern Ireland to have such restrictions in the rules of any club or association. I and other Ministers will do our best to persuade and urge the association to change it. As I say, there are other clubs in Northern Ireland which have restricted entry.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are totally different rates of grant for open and restricted voluntary sports clubs. Since 1962 —this, again, stems from the Stormont period—clubs with restricted membership receive grants of 33⅓ per cent., whereas clubs with open membership receive 50 per cent. grants. So there is a form of discrimination against clubs that restrict in their membership, and if they wish to retain that discrimination, they forgo grant.

It is worth repeating that all that stems from decisions that were taken by a Stormont Government with an overwhelming Unionist majority. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the publication of the rules and aims of the GAA in 1966. If one looks at the grants given by the Department of Education in Northern Ireland they were £400, £750, £180 and £600 in successive years up to 1966–67. Immediately after that publication there was a dramatic change in the grants made to GAA clubs. They increased from a few hundred pounds to £9,700, £3,500 and £6,700 in the three succeeding years.

However offensive the aims might have been to the hon. Gentleman, there is no doubt that immediately following the publication of the document making those aims clear, the Stormont Government saw no difficulty in dramatically increasing the grants that were being made to those clubs.

I do not see a breach of section 19 of the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. That was raised about four years ago. I doubt whether any court would find that the exclusions under rule 15 and others raised by the hon. gentleman are on grounds of religious belief or political opinion.

In closing, I say that although I find rule 15 and others of the GAA repugnant, as I am sure they are to other hon. Members, it is worth reiterating the role that sport has played in Northern Ireland in crossing the sectarian divide. The hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) may find that a matter of great hilarity but—

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I find it irrelevant.

Mr. Scott

The right hon. Gentleman may take that view, but I do not agree with him. The GAA has its rules and I find them repugnant, but the right hon. Gentleman should recognise, as I do, the role that sport plays in crossing the division between the communities.

Many of the clubs have done a great deal to bring the communities together. Although hon. Members may unite in declaring repugnant the GAA's attitude, it does not stop us paying tribute to the many other sports men in Northern Ireland and, indeed, in the island of Ireland, who see sport as a way of crossing the divide between the communities.

To see an Irish rugby team and a Northern Ireland soccer team bringing great achievements, with no divisions between the communites, is a great lesson to the GAA and to all those who try to bring sectarianism into sport.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Twelve o'clock.