Extending a hand to GAA
“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” – Confucius
Belfast’s News Letter yesterday ran a front page picture of NI First Minister Peter Robinson beside a fine bust of Confucius. He was recently attending a ceremony in China’s Hubei Normal University to receive an honorary degree – clearly on his self-professed journey of embracing cultural diversity and respect, he is prepared to cast the net wide and with a commendable catholicity.
On Thursday night he was busy “carrying away small stones” in a speech to a Co-operation North dinner honouring the peace-building work of the GAA. “It is a sign of just how much things have changed,” he said, “that the GAA plays such a positive role . . . I believe that this programme is making a real contribution to the lives of young people in the province.”
It was a timely gesture of reconciliation with an organisation which, although historically rooted in the nationalist tradition, has itself shown in recent years a willingness to reach across the sectarian divide. “Not so many years ago it would have been unimaginable that I would have been invited to speak at an event of this kind – or that I would have accepted,” Mr Robinson admitted. And he paid particular welcome tribute to GAA officials Danny Murphy and Ryan Feeney for their outreach work.
For many years the GAA has been seen in the unionist community as a Provo front, caricatured unfairly, as were many nationalists, as IRA apologists. The first steps of reconciliation were taken with the bedding in of the peace process and the lifting by the GAA in 2001 of the ban on the police and British army, prompting the creation of the PSNI GAA club. But it was only in 2012 that Mr Robinson would attend his first GAA game. Perhaps most important symbolically, was the moving handover of the coffin of Constable Ronan Kerr, killed by dissident republicans, from local GAA colleagues to his fellow police officers at his funeral in April 2011 in Beragh, Co Tyrone. The First Minister on Thursday, however, qualified his praise with an understandable warning against complacency, specifically over what he saw as the glorification of terrorism, an allusion to unionist resentment at the practice – albeit rare – of naming clubs and competitions after republican heroes.
The response of pundit and Dungiven club member Joe Brolly suggests, however, that not all of the GAA’s base is yet on message about the organisation’s commitment to inclusiveness. “It’s nobody else’s business,” Brolly blustered, defending Dungiven’s right to be call itself after INLA hunger striker Kevin Lynch, who played football and hurling for the club. “People can like it or lump it.” Mr Robinson, who has recently performed a regrettable U-turn on the proposed Maze peace centre, is not alone in sending out mixed messages.