Dissidents have made a serious strategic error


When you take on the GAA on this island, you take on the whole community

FEW NEWS photos are as powerful as that taken by Press Association photographer Niall Carson this week depicting Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, GAA president Christy Cooney and other GAA officials carrying Ronan Kerr’s coffin while members of the Beragh Red Knights club stood side by side with PSNI officers in a guard of honour.

The brutal murder of Constable Kerr may have occasioned this funeral but it was the determination of a local community and police service to be unified in their condemnation of the event that generated the poignant symbolism captured in the photograph.

The GAA and the PSNI are two astonishing organisations and it is extraordinary how far they have each come. The PSNI, formed out of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is a transformed entity. The Patten process and subsequent overhaul of policing is probably the most extensive and most effective public sector reform and change management programme ever conducted on these islands.

The GAA, founded as part of the Irish cultural and nationalist revival of the late 19th century, endures as our most significant sports and social organisation. Other once great national movements like the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil may have imploded but the GAA has been active enough and adaptable enough to remain omnipresent.

While coverage of its sporting events dominates sports bulletins and the back pages of newspapers, stories about the GAA’s general impact in society demand prominence on our front pages and in news broadcasts.

Only this week, in addition to its role at Constable Kerr’s funeral, other stories told of the GAA providing a support network for newly emigrated young people in Australia as well as exploring means of tackling unemployment among its players here at home. This week we also read how the visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Croke Park is set to be one of the iconic events of her state visit.

The two organisations have a troubled history. For more than a century, Rule 21 prohibited RUC members from joining the GAA, having been put in place when it was suspected the Royal Irish Constabulary was trying to plant informants. Mutual suspicions were heightened during the Troubles.

GAA members felt harassed by the police. The fact that policemen and policewomen in the North were locked out from the dominant sport in Catholic communities contrasts sharply with the opportunity the GAA has provided to An Garda Síochána. GAA involvement provided local gardaí with an important means of building relationships with local communities. The prominence of gardaí on county and club teams has been a subtle but significant factor in shaping the standing enjoyed by An Garda Síochána in many areas.

Over the last decade things have changed utterly. The RUC became the PSNI. Catholic participation in the service grew exponentially under the Patten-recommended 50-50 recruitment regime. A decade ago the GAA removed Rule 21. The eventual decision of Sinn Féin to support the PSNI and the devolution of justice and policing powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly and multiparty government have been other milestones.

During the last decade the PSNI formed its own GAA team, which participates in the International Police Gaelic Games and , since 2004, students in the PSNI training college have competed in the GAA Sigerson Cup inter-college championship.

The strengthening of the relationship between the GAA and the PSNI also strengthens policing in Catholic communities and poses a real threat to those who want to engage in crime. It also undermines the sectarian mindset upon which dissident republicanism thrives.

It is this mindset which led them in January 2010 to bomb the car of Constable Peadar Heffron, then captain of the PSNI’s GAA team. He was lucky to survive, albeit with serious and lasting injuries. It is also what led dissident republicans to bomb Constable Kerr’s car with even more tragic results.

Those involved in his murder may in time face criminal sanction. However, already this week community opprobrium via the GAA has delivered an even more effective sanction.

In targeting GAA players who are police officers the dissidents have made a strategic error. When you take on the GAA on this island, you take on the whole community.