Ulster Council attempting to breach the great historic divide
GAA’s efforts to be recognised later this month by Co-Operation Ireland
The North’s First Minister Peter Robinson with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at the 2012 McKenna Cup final between Derry and Tyrone.
At the end of last week the Belfast newspaper the News Letter carried a piece saying that fewer than one per cent of Northern Ireland’s Protestant population had attended a Gaelic games match in the previous year.
Not a publication known for its sympathetic engagement with the GAA, the News Letter was however basing its statistics on the 2011-12 Continuous Household Survey, administered by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA).
It’s easy to understand why Gaelic games might be a hard sell for the unionist community in Northern Ireland but issues such as the heavily nationalist trappings and occasional entanglements with the republican paramilitary past are only one side of the issue when examining the GAA’s modern role in the North.
A great deal has been done to reach out to the unionist community but this is unsurprisingly a transformative process that will take a long time. A significant step was taken with the decision at the annual congress of four years ago to alter the definition of the GAA from “non-sectarian and non-racist” to “anti-sectarian and anti-racist” – recognition of how policy moved towards proactive engagement on both fronts.
“The policy of being an anti-sectarian and anti-racist Association continues to require us to engage and outreach to those who traditionally would have no involvement in the GAA,” was how Ulster secretary Danny Murphy put it in his 2011 annual report.
Murphy and Ryan Feeney the Ulster Council’s head of community,strategy and public affairs, have driven those programmes of engagement and outreach.
The Cúchulainn Cup is, according to the Ulster GAA, its flagship cross-community project. Established as a four-year programme to “promote good community relations while also promoting Gaelic Games to those who normally wouldn’t get the opportunity to participate in the sport,” it recently completed its sixth year.
By bringing in young people – this year saw the involvement of 250 students – and providing them with training in football and hurling, the provincial council introduces them to the games and each year a team travels overseas to take part in a youth competition.
There have also been initiatives with other sports, such as ‘The Good Relations Forum,’ described as “a joint event between Ulster GAA and IFA . . . the first time that the two largest governing bodies for sport in Ulster will come together to explore the impact of sport in building community relations and developing our communities.”
The “Game of Three Halves” initiative, supported by former rugby international Trevor Ringland, was designed to bring together children who play rugby, soccer and Gaelic games and give them an chance to sample each others’ sports.
These ideas are all part of a planned, incremental policy of reaching out to explain Gaelic games to what has been a traditionally indifferent demographic.
On the public stage there have been so many seminal events in recent times: the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Croke Park two years ago this week followed some months later by the North’s First Minister Peter Robinson attending the McKenna Cup final between Derry and Tyrone . . .
For all the progress made there are problems. Sectarian abuse has occasionally erupted with the case of Lisnaskea Emmets hurler Darren Graham, a Protestant, gaining prominence six years ago and similar allegations arising last weekend concerning Monaghan player Drew Wylie, also a Protestant, are being investigated within the county.
This is however part of the wider problem of verbal abuse within Gaelic games and other sports. Personal misfortune, race, sexual orientation and religion are all availed of in the search for ‘an edge’.
The difficulties caused for the unionist community by the nationalist trappings of the GAA are even harder to dispel. In 1994, speaking to this newspaper, Dr Chris McGimpsey of the Ulster Unionist Party articulated his reservations.
“It’s recognised as a sport with political connotations, the flag, the Tricolour, the refusal to let RUC men go on crowd control duty. There is a feeling of a state within a state.”
Since then Rule 21, excluding the Northern security forces from GAA membership, has gone and so has the RUC. The association has played its part in ensuring the PSNI is not deprived of nationalist recruits.
The legacy of The Troubles remains. Symbols and flags in particular continue to be important and the memories of recent decades will take time to recede.
But progress is being made. The GAA’s role in cross-community relations will be recognised later this month by the prominent peace-building charitable foundation Co-operation Ireland.
In reaching out, the GAA also has to bring its own community along with it too. But allowing that the longest journey begins with the smallest step, the association through the Ulster Council is already well on the road.