An Ulster football guide to Brexit

A GAA supporter explains Brexit – and Gaelic football – to a British audience

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Minister of State Joe McHugh  at the Ulster football final between Fermanagh and Donegal on Sunday.  Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Minister of State Joe McHugh at the Ulster football final between Fermanagh and Donegal on Sunday. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Football supporters will travel a long way to witness a team’s success or failure, including across international borders. Making the journey is part of the point, since supporting a team is about belonging and dedication. England fans travelled more than 3,000km to Nizhny Novgorod to see their team beat Panama on Sunday.

Fans from a different part of the UK also travelled across a border to watch an important match, which was held at the same time as England’s. These were fans of the Fermanagh Gaelic football team – traditionally a minnow thanks to the county’s small population – competing against Donegal in the Ulster final. The match was in Clones, Co Monaghan.

To get there, some Fermanagh supporters will have driven only a few kilometres. Some may even have walked. The stadium is a 10-minute stroll across the Border, along a country lane. It is often said the only way to tell the exact location of the Border is the subtle change in the road markings. Not on this road: there are no markings.

This is why the Border is a stumbling block in the Brexit talks. When the Irish government makes UK negotiators’ lives more difficult it is not just for cross-Border businesses seeking seamless trade, but also for Fermanagh’s Gaelic football fans.

The Gaelic Athletic Association is the largest participatory sporting body on the island of Ireland, but its history is also intimately – if unofficially – linked to Irish nationalism. For decades its members were banned from playing “foreign” games such as rugby or soccer.

Its members in Northern Ireland do not all vote Sinn Féin – though many do – but the vast majority will have some degree of sympathy with Irish nationalism. It was, after all, an organisation founded to preserve and enhance a cultural version of Irishness distinct from Britishness.

It has never been a politically neutral organisation. Most controversial was its ban on “British” security force members, including the police in Northern Ireland, until the turn of the 21st century. This contributed to a long-term suspicion of the organisation among Ulster’s unionists.

Welcome gesture

But as important as its nationalist connotations are its communal and local ones. Its clubs are, by tradition, connected to Catholic parishes. The league is far stronger in conservative rural areas than urban or suburban ones, where the bonds of locality and tradition are weaker. My grandfather, a small farmer in Co Down, limited his annual holidays to two excursions in September: to Dublin, to watch the All-Ireland hurling and football finals.

For many of Northern Ireland’s rural nationalists, it allowed them to imagine themselves and their localities inside a nation. Even if they were not political, that nation was not the partitioned Northern Ireland, let alone the United Kingdom.

Last Sunday, there were two pleasant surprises (although sadly Fermanagh lost). One was weather more like the Mediterranean than Monaghan; the other was the appearance of the DUP leader Arlene Foster.

Though she represents Fermanagh in the suspended Stormont Assembly, the devolved parliament in Belfast currently not sitting, she had never before been to a GAA match. The gesture was warmly welcomed; many people in Northern Ireland are desperate for a break from tribal mud-slinging. She was clapped walking in, and rightly praised for standing for the Irish national anthem.

She grew up just a few miles from Clones, on the northern side of the border, but her journey to the game was different than that of the other Fermanagh fans in one fundamental way. And different from the journeys my late grandfather made to Dublin. She was leaving the United Kingdom. To them, they were travelling within Ireland.

The test of the Brexit deal on the Border will be how it manages this psychological dissonance: people who believe they belong to two nations existing in the same place. The next question is whether such a deal can also satisfy those England fans in Nizhny Novgorod who voted Leave. It probably cannot. – Copyright Financial Times Limited 2018

* Matthew O’Toole is a former spokesman on Brexit in Number 10 Downing Street.

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