Analysis: cross-border sports in Ireland like Gaelic games could face many challenges in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Over three years since a majority of voters in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the British government appears to be no closer to working out what "Brexit" means - other than Brexit, of course. With just over two months to go until the October 31st deadline, when the UK is due to leave the EU, the potential disruption from this is enormous.

At the core of the current impasse is the issue of the border in Ireland, which will become the only land border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Understandably, the potential for a "hard" border within Ireland is a vital concern to the business community and farmers to name a few. But in such an event, the ending of the free movement of people is also a huge problem for the operation of cross-border sport in Ireland.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, Gaelic football pundit Joe Brolly on the GAA and any potential support for a border poll in the event of a hard Brexit

In terms of the governance of Irish sport, it is clear that the vast majority operate on the basis of a "soft" border to ensure cross-border competition. While no border is designed specifically with sport in mind, the potential for disruption to sporting activity is enormous. Even within a sport is already partitioned along what becomes the UK-EU land border, the potential for disruption is clear in the curious case of Derry City FC.

Cross-border sports: Gaelic games, rugby, cricket, hockey, golf, boxing, tennis, table tennis, rowing, swimming, triathlon, motorcycling, squash

Partitioned sports: football, motorsport, martial arts

Previously partitioned sports: athletics (1924-30), cycling (1928-79)

What exactly could a hard border mean for cross-border Irish sporting activity? The implications appear to be clearest for the GAA, whose very rules and regulations state explicitly they are an all-island organisation:

This basic aim has endured for well over a century, though 19th century cultural affinity was never designed to withstand a 21st century realignment of customs unions and tariffs schedules. However, the potential difficulties posed by the border to Ulster GAA is nothing new. Following partition, the 1922 Ulster Football final was abandoned due to disruption caused by border checks, as the Derry Journal reported on January 16th 1922:

News of an amazing and highly provocative proceeding on the part of the Special Constabulary in Tyrone reached Derry yesterday morning and caused much indignation. The action of the specials resulted in the abandonment of the final of the Ulster Senior football championship, which was to have been played at Brandywell road ground's yesterday between teams representing Monaghan and Derry.

Fearing that they would be held up in Derry by a railway strike, the Monaghan team, with supporters, decided to make the journey to Derry by motor. The fleet of motors started on the long journey Saturday evening and all went well until they reached Dromore, Co. Tyrone, where, owing to interference of the Specials, the Journey was interrupted...The party were searched and it was discovered that they were proceeding to a Gaelic Football match in Derry. Ten of the party, including a number of players, were placed under arrest and the remainder ordered to return to County Monaghan again.

From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, former Armagh captain Jarlath Burns on the impact of a hard border on the GAA community, while Sinéad Hussey speaks to Tyrone and Cavan supporters about Brexit.

Consider a future Ulster championship game involving Derry and Monaghan, played in Armagh, or Tyrone and Donegal, played in Clones. It is unthinkable to imagine that team buses, or the vehicles of spectators and officials, having to stop at a checkpoint to be searched. The disruption to games is potentially enormous. If this is a game that is scheduled for live television coverage and players and officials are delayed, the problems are only beginning.

More worryingly, it is often suggested that the return of border infrastructure could lead to such equipment or the officials operating that border becoming the target of dissident republican violence. The historical context to border infrastructure is stark for the GAA, the killing of Aidan McAnespie by the British Army in 1988 at a border checkpoint a notorious example. 

Unfortunately, a negotiated backstop between the Home Office and Croke Park appears unlikely at this stage

So what can be done to ensure continued "frictionless trade" for the GAA in the event of a hard border? The Ulster football championship appears the competition most exposed to potential disruption, with the UK-EU frontier set to dissect that province.

However, the All Ireland qualifiers, the All Ireland club championships, the National Leagues and colleges/third level competitions also carry the potential for cross-border fixtures. With British Home Secretary Priti Patel declaring that Freedom of Movement for EU citizens will end on day one after Brexit, will UCC or UCD players require a visa to compete at a Sigerson Cup weekend at QUB? Or will Westmeath hurlers have an opportunity for a puck around in the car park, while they wait to clear Customs en route to Dunloy for a Joe McDonagh Cup game?

READ: Brexit, a border and the GAA

Unfortunately, a negotiated backstop between the Home Office and Croke Park appears unlikely at this stage. Gaels will be keeping a nervous watch on proceedings in the weeks that remain until the deadline.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.