It was recently reported that a Gaelic footballer in South Armagh has joined the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This is no trivial matter for locals. Only in November 2001 was Rule 21, banning members of the security forces from GAA clubs, scrapped after 98 years. Armagh was among five counties that voted to retain it. Word quickly spread that officials of the club in question, Keady Dwyers, would convene to discuss the matter, as though it were of grave concern to the nation. A “Code Orange” for Gaelic games, if you like. And in the Tom Ridge role of public watchdog was Pat McNamee.
“Constitutionally, there is nothing to prevent a member of the police joining a GAA club,” he told the Irish News, sounding quite tolerant, if a tad wistful for the halcyon days when Rule 21 was as fervently defended as, say, the unity aspiration. Note the reversed sequence: this isn’t about a cop joining the GAA, but a GAA member joining the cops. It’s a subtle but significant difference. The former would be shunned by his GAA colleagues; the latter might, by his example, cause other young men to wonder what the big deal is. Thus McNamee added this caveat: “but the necessary changes to policing still haven’t taken place.”
One need not be intimately familiar with South Armagh vernacular to recognize the implicit warning — people who join the police undermine Sinn Fein’s strategy for reform. He reinforced this with a comment in the Sunday Life, saying, “We understand why people at the club wouldn’t want to have a member of the PSNI — which is just an unreformed RUC — in their social or sporting circles.” Imagine the howls if GAA clubs here raised this objection to NYPD officers, whose record on matters of brutality is hardly spotless.
McNamee is essentially saying that no nationalist — or, more accurately, no Catholic, since that is the footballers’ only affiliation of which McNamee can be reasonably sure — should join the force until it has been dismantled. Such are the logical gymnastics demanded of Sinn Fein’s rubber men these days. The inherent embarrassment of being forced to publicly uphold this position ensures the independent-minded footballer is unlikely to be stood a drink by McNamee at the next Liars Convention.
Personally, I think footballers are ideal police recruits, what with their talent for administering savage kicks to opponents and then protesting their innocence when the whistle blows. But let us pretend that McNamee has a right to object to this career move. After all, his attitude is by no means uncommon in South Armagh, where anyone with a government job is somewhat suspect unless he is in a position to dispense money or gather intelligence. However, throw a stone in the area and you’ll likely hit someone equally suspicious of Assemblyman McNamee’s job at Stormont, and you wouldn’t even have to aim carefully. It’s tempting to paraphrase McNamee: “Constitutionally, there is nothing to prevent a member of Sinn Fein sitting in government, but unification still hasn’t taken place.”
The reasons behind anti-police sentiment in South Armagh are plentiful and justified. The British Army occupation of Crossmaglen’s GAA field, a longtime sore point, pales in comparison to the killings of GAA members over the years by state forces (though the IRA has also delivered permanent red cards to a few stalwarts). So refusing to fraternize with members of PSNI is a position that battle-hardened folks in the county are entitled to adopt, if that be their whim. But it doesn’t follow that Sinn Fein can legitimately don a kit and scamper onto the battlefield too. The rules say you can’t play for both sides, and the Shinners have already chosen theirs.
Does it not beggar belief that republican leaders demand their constituents not involve themselves with an agency of the state that Sinn Fein itself helps administer? Perhaps more so when all indicators suggest that the party will soon embrace the new policing structures. The situation resembles a parody of “Animal Farm,” as leaders move into the farmhouse while insisting the peasants must remain in the barn for their own safety.
Surely the daily demand by republicans for a fair and accountable police service would be answered if their neighbors join the force in substantial numbers. And remember that many potential recruits from the republican ranks have extensive experience in rooting out petty offenders, even if the punishment dispensed usually falls short of basic judicial norms.
To that end, I suggest that since McNamee is not running for reelection in the upcoming Assembly poll, he should dispatch his employment application to police headquarters promptly. The force can always use a man who knows how to maintain order with a few well-placed words.
The opinions expressed represent those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Irish Echo.