PSNI clash with St Brigid's to create a piece of sporting history

 

A small but significant piece of sporting history will be made at the end of this month when the PSNI's GAA team plays the St Brigid's club from south Belfast. It will be the first time the police team will confront a club from the "six counties", according to the PSNI squad coach Insp Damien Tucker.

His opposite number, St Brigid's coach Conor McSherry, is looking forward to the encounter which will take place at Belfast Harlequins rugby ground. A fiercely impartial referee may be required for the occasion. "It's not often you get a chance to get a slap at a cop," says McSherry.

"I can hardly get my 17-year-old to tog out for the St Brigid seniors, but he's been begging to play in this game," he adds.

St Brigid's and Harlequins are something of trailblazers in terms of sporting cross-community rapprochement in Northern Ireland. During the summer off-rugby season - the height of the GAA season - Harlequins has allowed St Brigid's to erect posts, train and play games on its grounds.

Harlequins and St Brigid's encourage their members respectively to try Gaelic football and rugby.

This summer Gordon Hamilton of Harlequins, the Irish player who almost put paid to Australia in the 1991 rugby World Cup with a famous try on the wing at Lansdowne Road, and Noel McGuckian of St Brigid's organised training sessions where young Harlequin rugby players were given coaching in Gaelic football skills.

Moreover, the PSNI social club at New Forge Lane in south Belfast is regularly used by the Antrim county GAA team for training purposes. Last year the predominantly Protestant Linfield soccer club provided training facilities for the St Mary's Teacher-Training College camogie team in west Belfast.

"It's up to us to encourage non-Catholics to play our games," McSherry says. "We also need to get the different ethnic groups who are coming into Northern Ireland to get involved."

Not so many years ago all this would have triggered shock headlines, perhaps controversy and even trouble, but these days nobody blinks an eye, which in turn creates the necessary atmosphere of sporting generosity to allow the St Brigid's versus PSNI game to take place.

The PSNI team has been desperately trying to establish a footing in the Gaelic football world since it was established after rule 21, which banned members of the PSNI and British army from playing the game, was finally abandoned five years ago. Their record so far is pretty dismal, Insp Tucker, a Co Down man, admits.

"The problem is we are not getting a regular flow of games. We play well for a while but then we get rusty because we are not getting match practice," he explains. The PSNI has played several games against the Garda, but without success.