Three-time All-Ireland winner Seán Cavanagh doesn't deserve to be "crucified" for referring to the North as "up here in the UK", according to the man who posted a video of the remarks on social media.
The former Tyrone footballer described himself as living in the UK during an RTÉ podcast. He was debating the impact on the GAA of restrictions to stem the spread of coronavirus on either side of the Border.
“Up here in the UK it’s a bit bizarre as well, because we all probably are watching Leo [Varadkar] and watching the GAA’s announcement and see ourselves as part of that. But equally, in terms of the day-to-day living, we’re waiting on the announcement from Boris [Johnson],” he said.
A welter of sometimes vicious attacks was unleashed on Twitter in response to the remarks, which were also seized upon by Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew, who represents Mr Cavanagh's Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.
“I presume by that Seán isn’t playing Pádraig Pearse in the forthcoming film on the Easter Rising then?” tweeted Ms Gildernew.
Sinn Féin councillor for Derry and Strabane Ruairí McHugh tweeted: "Mortifying."
Mr Cavanagh was discussing the GAA's announcement last week that there will be no intercounty fixtures before October, along with pundit Pat Spillane and RTÉ online sport editor Mikey Stafford.
The chartered accountant, who has offices in Moy, Co Tyrone and Dundalk, Co Louth, suggested younger players in particular be allowed to return to Gaelic games sooner to alleviate their frustration during the lockdown.
Referring to the need to look after people’s mental health and social wellbeing, he added: “I just hope common sense comes somewhere along the line.”
A shortened video of the UK reference which went viral was posted by Aodhán Harkin, a member of Tyrone GAA in Strabane who describes himself as a “proud republican”, along with the tweet: “I don’t believe that former Tyrone great [Seán Cavanagh] thinks that we are in the UK. Too many Red Hand Gael’s (sic) have been butchered, imprisoned and brutalised to hear such an utterance.”
Mr Harkin told The Irish Times: "Seán created this furore, not me. I don't understand why Seán calls us the UK; we are not the UK, we are Gaels. We identify as being Irish as much as those in Skibbereen or Cork or Kerry or wherever."
Mr Harkin said Mr Cavanagh had spoken out of turn.
"As a Gaelic footballer for Moy and Tyrone I have total respect for Seán Cavanagh – probably one of the greatest Tyrone players ever – but I think his comments were totally out of order," he added.
But Mr Harkin condemned some of the more vicious remarks on Twitter against the former footballer, saying he didn’t deserve the backlash fuelled by the posting of the video.
“I don’t agree that Seán or his family or anyone else should be taking any stick over this. I totally disagree with that.”
Mr Harkin said he understood Mr Cavanagh worked as a chartered accountant and would speak about tax and financial regimes in UK and Irish terms on a day-to-day basis.
“He doesn’t deserve to be crucified for it,” he said.
Many also came to Mr Cavanagh’s defence on Twitter. One said: “The reaction to this has been . . . hysterical and full of outrage. He clearly meant UK jurisdiction, not country.”
Mr Stafford tweeted: “Not sure most piling on [Mr Cavanagh] care about context. But I asked Seán Cavanagh a very specific question about different approaches to pandemic in two separate jurisdictions and how that impacted on GAA club members North and South of the Border.”
Mr Cavanagh did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The former All Star last year described a leaked video of the Tyrone team on a bus singing Come Out, Ye Black and Tans as “embarrassing”.