Thaw slowly setting in between GAA and unionism after years of mutual suspicion

Analysis: attitudes changing as North awakes to possibilities offered by detente

Armagh and Galway do battle in the 1999 National League at Crossmaglen under the British army base. Photograph: Stephen Davison /Pacemaker

Armagh and Galway do battle in the 1999 National League at Crossmaglen under the British army base. Photograph: Stephen Davison /Pacemaker

 

Through most of the Troubles the relationship between the GAA and unionists was fraught, difficult and sometimes murderous. The thaw set in only in recent years.

With the flying of the Tricolour and the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann at Gaelic games there were many unionists who put the organisation into the same category as the IRA.

That view was reinforced by the fact that many IRA members would have been associated with local GAA clubs. It was also strengthened by the GAA ban on the RUC and British army members playing Gaelic games.

Furthermore, several unionist politicians have put forward the notion that numerous GAA clubs are titled after republican paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.

There is, in fact, one – the club in Dungiven, Co Derry, named after local INLA member Kevin Lynch, who died on hunger strike in 1981.

There were other unionists, more discerning, who understood that here was a massive organisation comprised of a membership of broad nationalist opinion – and during the conflict most of that opinion favoured the peaceful politics of the SDLP above the violence of the IRA and the politics of Sinn Féin.

Abducted
There were many loyalists too, not at all discerning, who saw GAA players, officials and supporters as so-called legitimate targets.

Among those they murdered was GAA official Seán Brown, abducted and shot dead by loyalists after locking up the Bellaghy club in Co Derry in 1997. Through all levels of unionism and loyalism, regardless of the degree of discernment, there was distrust of the GAA.

Since the ceasefires, the 1998 Belfast Agreement and the creation of the PSNI attitudes slowly began to soften, with the GAA more than unionism pushing that change.

The GAA ban on the police and the British army was finally scrapped in 2001. This prompted the creation of the PSNI GAA club.

In 2006, led by senior Ulster officials Danny Murphy, Tom Daly and Ryan Feeney, the GAA made a determined attempt to reach out to unionism. It was emphasised that the organisation was cultural and non-political and that the Britishness of 900,000 unionists must be “recognised and respected”.

At first the unionist response to the hand of friendship was guarded. In 2010 Tom Elliott, the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party – viewed as the more liberal of the two main unionist parties – just couldn’t bring himself to attend a GAA game, prompting former Irish rugby international Trevor Ringland to resign in protest.

Movement
But there was movement. In January 2012 Peter Robinson attended his first GAA game – a Dr McKenna Cup final between Tyrone and Derry in Armagh – and he also went to Casement Park in Belfast last year for a game in memory of Michaela Harte, the murdered daughter of Tyrone manager Mickey Harte.

There have been other reciprocal gestures since then but the most powerful was at the funeral in April 2011 in Beragh, Co Tyrone, of Constable Ronan Kerr, killed in a dissident republican bomb attack in Omagh.

The symbolic handing over of his coffin from Constable Kerr’s local GAA colleagues to his fellow police officers demonstrating the possibilities for continuing cross-community detente.