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Why has the GAA allowed a political group to sponsor Leitrim’s jerseys?

The GAA, according to rule 1.11 of its constitution and rules, is a non-party political organisation. That means, in short, that it does not get involved in, or take sides in, matters of political controversy. The rule has some leeway built into it, as nearly every rule in Ireland does: Non party political does not prevent it from taking sides on issues, for example. But the spirit of the law, and the reason for putting it into the GAA constitution, are clear. Those who wrote the rule wanted sports to be a break from politics, not a continuation of it.

All of which makes the decision by Leitrim County Board to accept sponsorship from the Migrant Rights Centre interesting. It has not yet made the decision controversial, but it really should.

To be clear, it should not be remotely controversial for Leitrim GAA, or any sporting body, to take a stand against racism: Indeed, rule 1.12 of the GAA (the one that comes immediately after the ban on political activity) makes it clear that the GAA is an anti-racist organisation which adheres to a policy of non-discrimination. The message on the jerseys is harmless, and inoffensive, enough.

The issue is with who the message is from.

The Migrant Rights Centre, after all, is an explicitly political organisation. It engages in political lobbying, campaigning, and advocacy. It receives hundreds of thousands of euros annually from Government departments and agencies – including the Department of Justice, Tusla, the Scheme to Support National Organisations, and Dublin City Council, to name but a few – to support its work.

Amongst its stated goals is this: to “Secure broad political support to address the situation of undocumented migrants, to introduce a regularisation for undocumented migrants and their families in Ireland”

Securing regularisation for undocumented migrants is not about racism, or anti-discrimination, of course. It is an overtly political cause, involving political lobbying, and activism. And the GAA has now decided to put the logo of an activist group on its shirts.

You might argue that this is fine because the message itself is relatively harmless. But where does that principle end, or begin? For example, do we think that if a Catholic lobby group, like the Iona Institute or the Pro-Life Campaign, wished to advertise a harmless slogan – for example “life is precious” – with their logo on it, that the GAA would acquiesce? Probably not, would be my guess.

If the GAA really wanted to send a message opposing racism, why do they need to partner with any political group at all? And would they partner with anybody, to send that exact same message? For example, if Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil had approached them and offered to pay for jerseys with a “no to racism” message on them, but with the party logo displayed, would the GAA have said yes? Again, probably not, would be my guess.

Many of the things that the Migrant Rights Centre wants to do are matters of political controversy, and debate. It is an activist group – not simply a charity. The GAA, by making an exception, and plonking its logo on their jerseys, are endorsing its work. Not just the bland “racism is bad” part of its work – all of its work.

But as usual, this will barely raise an eyebrow amongst anyone inside, or outside, the organisation. One of the core principles of Irish governance is that principles should not be allowed to stand in the way of causes that are popular – that is why we had the spectacle of politicians attending Black Lives Matter protests during lockdown. Principles only exist to be applied when it is convenient to apply them. The GAA, it turns out, are as guilty of that as anyone else.


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