Sun, Apr 17, 2005 - Page 24 News List

Association under pressure to host non-Gaelic events


The annual congress of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Ireland's nationalist defender of home-grown sports, convened Friday to vote on a long-divisive issue -- whether to allow the "foreign" sports of soccer and rugby to be played at its flagship Dublin stadium.

For more than a decade, the grassroots body of Gaelic sports has resisted outside pressure to open Croke Park for occasional use by Ireland's national soccer and rugby teams.

The ban, called Rule 42, seeks to restrict the appeal of those sports, both British inventions that enjoy widespread and growing appeal in Ireland.

But most GAA leaders say they want members to vote in favor of loosening the ban when the issue faces a vote Saturday at the conference, being held inside Croke Park. The last time they voted in 2001, change was shot down by a single vote.

The question has reached a critical moment because the government of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern plans next year to raze and rebuild Ireland's other major stadium, Lansdowne Road, where the national soccer and rugby teams have played home games for decades.

Lansdowne Road, in the heart of up-market south Dublin, is universally recognized as too small and shabby to keep hosting international events.

Croke Park, by contrast, is a monument to the organization and muscle, both financial and political, of the GAA.

The stadium in Ahern's scruffy north Dublin district cost 230 million euros (US$270 million) to expand in the 1990s to its 82,000-seat capacity -- and sits empty for all but a few dozen days a year.

Ahern said he didn't want to tell the GAA how to vote. But he noted it would be "a shame" if the GAA forced Ireland's home soccer and rugby games to be played in neighboring Britain while Lansdowne Road was being rebuilt.

He said the GAA should vote "not only in the interests of Gaelic games, but in the national interest of other sports as well."

The GAA is the dominant sports organization in Ireland, with 350,000 players of Gaelic football, hurling and the similar game of camogie in more than 2,000 clubs across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a British territory.

Its foundation in 1884 was significant in the development of Irish nationalist politics that culminated in the 1920-1921 war of independence from Britain.

Croke Park featured in an exceptionally bitter episode from that conflict -- "Bloody Sunday."

On that day in November 1920, British troops fired into the stadium during a Gaelic football match, killing 13 spectators and a player, in supposed retaliation for the assassination of several police intelligence officers in their homes.

Opposition today to opening Croke Park runs deepest north of the border, where the Catholic minority remains trenchantly anti-British.

The GAA boards of all six Northern Ireland counties say their members will reject any softening of the boycott on British sports, while only two of the republic's 26 say they will do so: County Monaghan, which borders Northern Ireland, and Cork in the southwest, which is widely known as "the rebel county."

To be passed, the motion to open Croke Park to rugby and soccer will require two-thirds support from the 336-member congress.

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