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Back in the day: Apr 19 1998: Speculation mounting that British army set to withdraw from Crossmaglen GAA pitch it has occupied for 20 years

The Crossmaglen Rangers team stand for the national anthem, with the British Army base in the background.
The Irish News Archive

SPECULATION was mounting last night that the British army may be about to vacate a south Armagh GAA pitch it has occupied for 20 years.

The surrender of the Crossmaglen Rangers pitch could be the vital factor in moves to overturn a GAA ruling that bans members of the security forces from playing Gaelic games. Delegates at the GAA’s annual congress have agreed to the staging of a special conference on May 30 to consider the ending of rule 21.

GAA president Joe McDonagh called a meeting of the influential management committee during a break in the congress, emerging after two hours of debate to support the lifting of the ban.

But any decision to allow members of the security forces into the GAA looks to be a non-starter until the issue of the British army’s occupation of Crossmaglen’s ground is tackled.

The GAA president visited the south Armagh ground just over two months ago and co-opted himself on the club’s sub-committee, stating the move was a clear sign of his personal commitment to solving the controversy.

Mr McDonagh is understood to have given the south Armagh club an undertaking that the British army installation could be removed within a week of any abolition of rule 21.

It is understood that the pitch could be handed back to the club even before the special congress.

The planned move has been given the backing of Secretary of State Mo Mowlam and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. “I would like to see an end to all contention between the GAA and the future police service,” said Mr Ahern, “including the restoration of the grounds occupied at Crossmaglen, and a review of existing exclusion rules.”

“I know that the GAA, which has always shown sterling national leadership, will be in the vanguard when courage and vision are called for.”

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THE four dissident northern counties who persuaded GAA President Joe McDonagh not to immediately abolish Rule 21 during annual congress on Saturday were Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone and Derry, the Irish News has learned.

There was said to have been a heated Central Council meeting before the President’s annual address, during which several of the border counties played a pivotal role in ensuring the Rule, which prohibits British Army and RUC officers from becoming members of the GAA, was not put before the floor at such short notice.

Armagh chairman John Moley last night said his delegation could not accept McDonagh’s suggestion to suspend standing orders and push the changes through at Congress.

“We would see Rule 21 and Crossmaglen as two separate issues and there is no way Crossmaglen should be a bargaining matter. There is no link between them,” he said.

Unwilling to risk trading Rule 21 for Crossmaglen, the northern delegates - one of whom said the idea to scrap the rule at congress had been “sprung” on them - expressed their grave reservations over the suddenness of the move, and insisted they would have to go back home to consult their members.

Having underestimated the strength of feeling about the Army’s 27-year occupation of Crossmaglen and clearly disappointed not to have kept up the momentum which had gathered pace throughout the day, the President afterwards accepted any possible abolition would have to “go through the proper procedures.”

However, it’s thought he is confident of pushing the change through at a special congress to be held on May 30.

Crucially, only a majority decision, instead of the regular two-thirds majority, will be needed at special congress to abolish the rule. After delivering his address, McDonagh denied that the northern counties had been the stumbling block to any immediate scrapping of the rule.

Read more - Former British soldier returns to GAA club to meet ‘enemy'

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