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Symbolic step of peace at Irish stadium

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Shortly before 5:30 p.m. on Saturday the "unthinkable" will happen in Dublin's historic Croke Park stadium. Eighty-seven years after British troops fired into the crowd here and killed innocent Irish spectators, England's rugby team will sing God Save the Queen before a peaceful international match against their Irish opponents.

The last time the British appeared here – albeit as soldiers, not rugby players – has gone down in history as (the first) Bloody Sunday. That day – Nov. 21, 1920 – began with the assassination of 14 British agents and informers by the Irish Republican Army. In response, British troops surrounded Croke Park stadium during a Gaelic football match to search spectators as they left the ground, but the crowd panicked and in the confusion 14 were killed.

The day's events transformed Croke Park into a shrine of sorts, and hardened the policies of the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884 to promote Irish culture and sport.

"Bloody Sunday politicized the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and solidified its relationship with nationalism," says historian Diarmaid Ferriter.

Until 1972, the GAA wouldn't allow its members to play "foreign" games, including soccer and rugby. And up until 2005, it wouldn't allow foreign games to be played in its stadiums. But it agreed to a temporary relaxation of its protectionist rules, allowing soccer and rugby internationals to take place during reconstruction work on Lansdowne Road, the home ground of Ireland's soccer and rugby teams.

Last week, the first of those games took place, with Ireland's rugby team playing France. But the inherent political dimension in Saturday's rugby match with England makes the game hugely symbolic, and is one example of reconciliation taking place outside the formal peace process.

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