Seán Moran: GAA need to tread warily around the issue of a Border poll

Burns’s sincere comments on association support for Irish unity are currently unrealistic

After a lengthy wait, two buses went by in quick succession in the past couple of days.

It was probably inevitable with the ongoing uncertainty over Brexit that the impact on the GAA would come into focus, as it did on Sunday when RTÉ Radio Ones's This Week programme ran a piece on apprehensions about the prospect of hard border re-emerging.

More strikingly, former Armagh captain and Ulster Council delegate Jarlath Burns in the course of a studio interview on the subject, digressed to express the hope that the GAA would support the case for unity in the event of Border poll being called in Northern Ireland.

A day later another well-known Ulster GAA personality, Joe Brolly, went a step farther on Seán O'Rourke's programme by calling on the association to support the case for a Border poll.


Burns’s opinion is more notional in that he’s talking hypothetically, as realistically there is no prospect of a Border poll taking place. Even were there to be one in the event of a hard or ‘no deal’ Brexit it’s not terribly likely that the GAA would swing in behind a vote for unity and in the absence of a poll, it’s impossible to imagine Croke Park pushing for one.

For context, Burns has declared his candidacy for the GAA presidency when the election takes place next year. Over a number of years he has been seen as a progressive influence in Northern Ireland life. Principal of a large secondary school, St Paul’s Bessbrook, his pupils have visited Orange halls and marched for gay rights.

It was therefore interesting that he would make such an outwardly nationalist statement on the radio – not because of his opinions, which coming from a strong republican background and a prominent Sinn Féin supporter, are unsurprising but because his public utterances on such topics have tended to be more nuanced.

To the point that he took a lot of criticism for a thoughtful interview with Eamonn Mallie four years ago in which he said that if it would attract unionists to Gaelic games, he would have no issue with dispensing with the flag and anthem at matches.

It would therefore be tempting to see the weekend’s remarks as a move to shore up local support in Ulster for his presidential bid given the scale of the criticism directed at his views on the above matters.

That would be to ignore other less-publicised views expressed by Burns in recent times. At the GAA Museum Summer School in 2017, presenting a paper on The GAA and Politics, there was no mistaking his more downbeat tone on the subject of outreach – a questioning that however great the effort, many unionists simply weren’t interested in opening up to Gaelic games.

It didn’t mean that he had become desensitised but he had adjusted his expectations of what could be achieved.

Political aspiration

The key argument he used to advocate the GAA’s involvement with any future Border poll campaign was Rule 1.2 in the Official Guide:

“The Association is a National Organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the National Identity in a 32 County Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic Games and pastimes.”

In other words, as he put it, rejecting neutrality on the poll would be “logical as well as ideological”.

Taken as a whole, though, Rule 1.2 commits the GAA to nothing more – or less – than nurturing the games in order to strengthen national identity. It’s a cultural and sporting rather than political aspiration.

It’s important to understand that the current uncertainty creates apprehensions for the GAA on both sides of the Border but for those in the North, it’s a further psychological rupture even if no hard border materialises. Contrary to how Northern Ireland voted, it has to leave the EU – and at a certain level, the south – behind.

These sensibilities have to be acknowledged even if the optimistic view of how things will be resolved proves correct.

The GAA though has made it clear in recent years that it wishes to stay out of referendum campaigns, even on such progressive causes as the same-sex marriage vote in 2015.

At the time it was pointed out that in the 2012 Children’s Referendum the GAA turned down a request to take an advocacy role in favour of the ‘yes’ side despite what was seen as the non-contentious (until 42 per cent voted against it) nature of the proposal.

The point being made is that the association is a broad church and referendums are by their nature divisive so it is not in the GAA’s interest to take sides. Even in something as cataclysmic as the H Block hunger strikes, the association resisted being drawn into a position despite the intensity of the opinions, particularly in Ulster.

As things stand, it is questionable the extent to which any such poll would command consensus on unity even south of the Border.

A further issue for the association would be that its outreach programmes in Northern Ireland, which even though, as in Burns’s personal view, they haven’t so far been transformative, continue to do good work on the interface of community relations.

It would be difficult to maintain those efforts if taking up an overtly political stance on something as stark as a Border poll.

The prevailing view is that such an initiative, as envisaged by the Belfast Agreement, would be to confirm that a decisive shift in opinion had taken place in Northern Ireland rather than a scoping exercise to determine the state of play.

More time is needed.