Seanad Éireann - Volume 103 - 02 May, 1984

Adjournment Matter. - Crossmaglen GAA Grounds.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: How long do you intend to wait for a Minister, Senator Dooge?

Professor Dooge: It is really a matter for the House.

Mr. Kiely: I would like the Minister for Foreign Affairs to be present.

Professor Dooge: I understand the Minister for Foreign Affairs is half way across the Atlantic; he is flying to America. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs is in Fiji at the moment on official business. I was assured today that a Minister would be present and that in fact a response had been prepared for this debate. I am at a loss to know why no Minister has turned up.

Mr. Kiely: I would prefer to wait for the Minister for Foreign Affairs because he is more familiar with this subject and has met a deputation from the GAA.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Minister of State, Deputy Donnellan, has arrived.

Mr. Kiely: No reflection on the Minister of State, who is deputising for the Minister for Foreign Affairs, but as I have already stated, I would prefer if the Minister for Foreign Affairs was here to hear what I have to say because this serious matter has been troubling the people of Crossmaglen for quite some time. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and his predecessors are very familiar with this situation in Crossmaglen and he would be the best person to hear what I would have to say. Deputy Donnellan, who is deputising for the Minister and who is familiar with GAA affairs, should listen and convey [1009] what I have to say to the Minister in the hope that something positive will be done for these people.

I wish to bring to the notice of the House and the Minister the serious situation which exists in Crossmaglen. I have attended many GAA congresses over the past 20 years, and since the British Army occupied the GAA grounds in Crossmaglen, this occupation has been discussed in each congress. It was again discussed at this year's congress held in Belfast during Easter weekend. I know that annually, or maybe more often, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has met deputations from the GAA to discuss the problems the Crossmaglen Rangers have because of the occupation of St. Oliver Plunkett Park by the British forces. I am sure that the Minister although he is not here, has been briefed on the position. His predecessors have met deputations and I have been informed that they have been most sympathetic, and I am sure the present Minister is equally sympathetic to the plight of the GAA club in Crossmaglen, and to their supporters and members.

What is really needed is positive action. I strongly urge the Minister to meet the British Government and insist that they withdraw the occupying Army forces from the grounds of Crossmaglen Rangers immediately. I am sure the British Government could remove the forces from the Crossmaglen Rangers GAA ground. It is the only sporting ground in the North of Ireland that is occupied by the British Army and I do not see what useful purpose is served by their occupation of the Crossmaglen GAA grounds. I am always against violence. I have spoken against violence in the past. I am totally opposed to violence. I am of the strongest opinion that the presence of the British Army in Crossmaglen and their occupation of the grounds of the Crossmaglen Rangers GAA club promotes deep resentment among the law-abiding citizens of the area. The intimidation and the harassment of the members of the Crossmaglen GAA Rangers Club by members of the British Army also promotes anger and resentment. The members of the GAA club and the community [1010] in general are most tolerant and patient to be putting up with such harassment and intimidation. There are occasions when the British Army close both entrances to the pitch and deny members entry to their own property.

During a football match the British Army took their tanks to a gate which the club had been given an assurance would be used only when the base was under attack. Recently, it was brought to our notice that a wall was knocked down. They drove their tank through the wall when they could have gone through the gate. There is an alternative entrance to the base through some educational property owned by the British Government. It would be more convenient and more accessible to enter the Army base through that ground rather than through the entrance to the Crossmaglen GAA Rangers field — St. Oliver Plunkett Park. They have surrounded supporters on the pitch, abused and threatened them and asked them for identification. On one occasion a ladies' keep-fit class was being conducted in the club hall in St. Oliver Plunkett Park; five members of the RUC forced their way into the hall and asked the ladies for the club register. On another occasion when a function was being held in the hall and at about 9 p.m. boys under 14 and 16 years of age were physically beaten outside the gate on the roadway. When people objected to this physical beating they were arrested and the reverend canon in Crossmaglen had to intercede on their behalf with the RUC/Army commanders in Crossmaglen. These club members cannot train on their own property on occasions and have to train at the secondary school in Crossmaglen.

I visited Crossmaglen last year and saw the damage which had been done to the Crossmaglen GAA Rangers Club property in St. Oliver Plunkett Park. Members of the Crossmaglen GAA Club are playing games in an environment which should be seen to be believed. It is great credit to them that they can still, in that environment and under such handicap and harassment, continue to promote and play our native games. While I was there a helicopter flew low over the hall.

[1011] You could see from the vibration that damage has been done to the hall and that eventually damage will be done to that hall which will be irreparable.

This year the GAA are celebrating the centenary of the founding of this great association. There are celebration ceremonies all over the country. Every club is involved in a big way in celebrating the centenary in a fitting manner. How can a club like Crossmaglen GAA Rangers —who should have the same right as any other club to celebrate the centenary — subject to such intimidation and harassment and their rightful property being occupied by the British forces, celebrate the centenary of the founding of this great association in a fitting manner?

I ask the Minister to urge the Minister for Foreign Affairs to use every possible pressure on the British Government to withdraw British Army presence from Crossmaglen GAA grounds. Pressure can work and it must work. Early in 1978 there was a plan to take over the entire grounds of Crossmaglen GAA Rangers Club. The then President of the GAA, Mr. Con Murphy — who is a county man of the present Minister for Foreign Affairs — met the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Michael O'Kennedy, and the plan was shelved. This proves that pressure can work.

The British Government even on humanitarian grounds have no other choice, if pressure is exerted by the Government and especially by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, to withdrawing the British Army from Crossmaglen — and particularly the Army presence from the GAA grounds which presence is totally unnecessary and has always been seen as an act of intimidation.

Crossmaglen GAA Rangers Club met a previous Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Gerard Collins, and he advised them to meet the Northern Ireland representative as regards being compensated for the immense damage that was being done to the grounds. They met the Northern Ireland representative on several occasions but when they seemed to be meeting with some success there was always a change in personnel and the [1012] whole procedure had to start all over again. It is necessary that the Minister get personally involved in ensuring that justice is done for Crossmaglen GAA Rangers Club and the Crossmaglen people and harassment and intimidation of the members eliminated.

Complete evacuation of the GAA grounds in Crossmaglen is sought. This is possible, especially on this historical day of the publication of the report of the Forum. This would be a gesture from the British Government. Our Government have co-operated on other matters of security and in this social matter pressure should be exerted by the Government, and especially the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Another point is the immediate giving back of the right of way which is used by the British Army when an alternative right of way is available to them if they feel they need to be present in that border town just two miles from the Republic. If they were to use this alternative and more convenient right of way, the people in Crossmaglen and the GAA Rangers would be spared the present intimidation, especially when tanks drive in regardless of life, knocking down whatever is in front of them. This is a matter that should be taken seriously by the Government and the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The club should get adequate compensation for the considerable damage that has been done — and I am sure that the Minister has been briefed on this and is aware of the situation in Crossmaglen. I hope that, by moving this motion on the Adjournment, something positive will be done, through the democratic process, to ensure that the GAA in Crossmaglen can play their games without harassment and can use their own field.

I wish to give Senator Deenihan some of my time.

An Leas-Cathaoirleach: The Senator should have notified the Chair. Senator Deenihan has five minutes.

Mr. Deenihan: I should like to support Senator Kiely's motion and to express similar sentiments on this issue. It is a [1013] gross insult both to Crossmaglen GAA Club and to the people of Crossmaglen that they have been subjected to this treatment over the past number of years. It is worth noting that no firm action has been taken by the British in withdrawing or seemingly making any effort to withdraw. It is now time that they began to take our complaints seriously and restored conditions to what they were before the British Army occupied Crossmaglen GAA pitch. It is unquestionably very hard to defend the intrusion by the British Army into the grounds and affairs of Crossmaglen GAA Club. They should be encouraging the use of these grounds and of the sports centre rather than preventing people from playing there.

I have first-hand experience because I happened to be in Crossmaglen on a few occasions and you have to see it to believe it. The integrity of the people involved in the GAA is unquestionable and they must be given some moral support in this very grave issue. The initiative will have to be taken here in the South, within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, towards solving it as soon as possible. In this period of reconciliation and debate on the prospects of getting both communities together, it would be a very fine gesture if something amicable were done as soon as possible. It would also be a fitting gesture in their centenary year to honour the contribution made by the GAA in looking after young people not only here in Ireland but in Britain. We must recognise the great contribution of the GAA in providing activities for young people in Britain. It is rather ironical, therefore, to see GAA grounds being intruded into in this way in Northern Ireland, when they are being allowed free play in Britain. The British Government should be asked to try to encourage more worth while activity in the North, and there is no greater activity than sport for getting young people involved. If the young are deprived of this opportunity, they can only grow hostile, and the aggression which could be released on the football field could be released in other areas.

Like Senator Kiely, I appeal for a positive response to this motion and an [1014] investigation of these complaints immediately.

Minister of State at the Department of Social Welfare (Mr. Donnellan): The strained relations between the Nationalist minority and the authorities in Northern Ireland are examined in the Forum Report which has been published today.

The problems faced by the Crossmaglen Rangers GAA club at Crossmaglen reflect these strained relations and have been of serious concern to the Government. They are important, not only in themselves but as an example of the serious disruption which the present troubles in Northern Ireland can bring to people going about their ordinary lives. Even so normal an activity as sport has not escaped the effects of the violence in Northern Ireland and the security measures which that violence has entailed.

The problems faced by the GAA Club in Crossmaglen date back to the disruption of the troubled seventies, when the British Army began to use the RUC station adjacent to the GAA grounds as a base for their operations. Soon after, they began to use the land owned by the club. Players found their games disrupted by low flying helicopters — some of these helicopters even landed upon the GAA pitch. The construction of a helicopter pad within the base complicated the problem even further. In fact, as the base expanded to accommodate more soldiers and helicopters, the army proceeded to requisition land belonging to the GAA to meet their needs. Twice, in 1974 and in 1976, part of the Crossmaglen club's property was taken over by the British authorities. The club suffered considerably from this loss of land and from the disruption caused by the proximity of the army base.

Recently, on 28 March, the Minister for Foreign Affairs met a delegation from the GAA. He examined the whole problem with them and considered ways in which a settlement might be reached. The difficulties which the club have encountered over the past ten years in their everyday sporting and social activities, ranging from loss of revenue to damage [1015] to property, to reported harassment of members of the club on the club grounds, were discussed.

The major and continuing difficulty is the simple one that the British Army continue to hold land which has been requisitioned from the club. The situation today is somewhat improved by comparison with that which existed in the late seventies, because in 1980 a considerable portion of this confiscated land was handed back to the GAA. This was, of course, a welcome development, but the fact remains that some land belonging to the GAA still remains within the British Army base.

A second issue is the damage which has been done to the club in material and financial terms since 1971. The most obvious damage has been the physical damage to property, including the playing pitch. In addition, the club has suffered severe financial loss because of the disruption of its sporting and social activities. As one of the leading clubs in Armagh, Crossmaglen Rangers could reasonably have expected to have staged county matches and to have benefited in terms of substantial ground improvements from the choice of its pitch as a county ground. Furthermore, as a direct result of the uncertainties and difficulties of the past decade, the Crossmaglen Club has not been able to invest capital to improve its facilities. There is no doubt that a major reason for this is the presence of the British Army.

A third difficulty is that the normal social activity associated with the club has been inhibited. Here I would single out one particular issue, namely, that of the right of way which the British Army have exercised since 1976 at the rear of the base. This right of way stretches across the entry to the GAA grounds and, in fact, encircles the clubhouse. The existence of such a right of way, and its frequent use during building operations in the base in the late seventies has seriously impeded access to the clubhouse, and has impaired the freedom of the members to make full use of the club's facilities.

The inevitable consequence of all these [1016] difficulties is tension between the GAA Club and the British authorities. There also have been instances of insensitive behaviour by military personnel, which has aggravated the situation.

It is important that a satisfactory solution to the problems at the Crossmaglen GAA grounds should be found. With this in mind, the Government have pressed the British authorities to come to an acceptable arrangement with the club. The obvious solution which the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his predecessors have pressed on the British authorities is the return of all the land requisitioned from the GAA. The British authorities, for their part, have stated that until the security situation in the area improves, they can see no possibility of the remaining land being restored to the club.

With regard to the right of way at the rear of the base, it is clear that if the British Army ceased using this a major source of complaint would be removed. The British authorities insist, however, that such an access is required for security reasons. As I have said, this interferes with the GAA club's right to the free and undisturbed use of their clubhouse and the entrance to their grounds.

In discussions with the GAA, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has explored possible ways out of this impasse. I would not wish here to go into the details of these discussions about ways of resolving the issues of the requisitioned land and the right of way. However, I can say this: the Government are anxious that the problems should be resolved by negotiation and agreement as quickly as possible, and are fully willing to give what assistance they can towards achieving this end. In doing so, I should state that the Government accept that security considerations are involved here. We feel, however, that security will benefit from good community relations and will be adversely affected by bad relations. This is an important point which we have stressed in discussions with the British authorities.

The issue of compensation to the GAA club is a further matter. I am informed that this question is now the subject of court proceedings and I would not wish [1017] to go further, therefore, than to urge a rapid and satisfactory agreement.

This is a special year in the history of the GAA, an organisation which has contributed so much to Irish life. The problems affecting the GAA grounds at Crossmaglen can be solved if approached in a sensitive and understanding way. A satisfactory response from the British authorities which would meet the GAA's concerns would, I believe, be a particularly appropriate gesture in this, the centenary year of the GAA, and would [1018] help to improve community relations in the area. The Government will continue to work for such a response.

Mr. Kiely: I thank the Minister of State for his reply and I would ask him to press the Minister for Foreign Affairs to put whatever pressure is possible to bring about a solution in Crossmaglen in the very near future.

The Seanad adjourned at 9 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 9 May 1984.