It has been a strange and extraordinary year for everyone, including the GAA and especially the association in Northern Ireland. This was a year that had been heralded by the uncertainty surrounding the final settlement of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
The Northern Ireland protocol may be a matter of unhappiness for the DUP but, as things stand, the island of Ireland isn’t going to be complicated with a major international border, which is good news for any 32-county organisation.
Notions, however, that the decent 2016 majority vote in the North in favour of continued EU membership might translate into inroads for the idea of a united Ireland have receded as the usual political divisions have re-emerged.
Such is the state of flux, though, that this year’s Northern Ireland census has been flagged for a while as being possibly the first to indicate that the Roman Catholic population has become the largest faith group in the state.
It has been an academic point of view, which scrupulously explains that such a demographic shift isn’t necessarily political, but there is no doubting its significance as a milestone.
Yet at this time of turbulence, the pandemic has created a more concrete border than has been seen for a while, allowing that the jittery but necessary measures to contain another plague, foot-and-mouth disease, didn’t last too long.
Recent weeks have seen some debate in the Ulster GAA, which also administers three counties in the Republic. This has been triggered by the North doing conspicuously better in terms of dealing with Covid both in suppressing numbers and rolling out the vaccine.
With these advances, clubs in the six counties are scheduled to return to restricted activities on April 12th should the Northern Ireland executive confirm their relaxation schedule after Easter.
This has prompted two separate responses: one, as argued by Armagh and Crossmaglen All-Ireland medallist Oisín McConville, that local Gaelic games should return as soon as the public health environment allows; and the other, as countered by Tyrone chair Michael Kerr, that the association should move as a single, 32-county entity.
It’s fair to say that the GAA’s Covid Advisory Group were not snubbing Kerr’s view of things when they rubber-stamped the potential return of clubs north of the Border. They were simply recognising realities.
There is a definite school of thought in Ulster that, if at all possible, the two jurisdictions should move in tandem – but that relies on there being no more than a couple of weeks in the difference. Unfortunately, clubs in the South are a fair degree off that trajectory.
Anyway, clubs will only have internal county competitions to occupy them, and there won’t be any crossing of paths with other provinces until next winter at the earliest.
There is a potential issue concerning the intercounty game, which is regarded – albeit with increasing anxiety – as likely to return in early April, with training permitted to resume.
That call has been left up to the Dublin Government, whose determination is expected towards the end of next week. Should the Covid numbers be sufficiently alarming to postpone that green light, what will there be to stop counties in the North returning to train when their clubs get the go-ahead on April 12th?
Ulster GAA has kept an even keel through all of this. Provincial CEO Brian McAvoy is a model of solid, low-key administration.
Just this week, Ulster Council was able to announce a sizeable slice of extra funding from Sport NI of £5.93 million (€6.9 million), a reflection of both the previously noted GAA acumen for completing compelling grant applications and perhaps the now less-controversial place of the association in the public affairs.
When added to the first tranche, it brought to £7.38 million (€8.5 million) the total received under the Sports Sustainability Fund – or not far off half what Gaelic games received (€18.5 million) from the Irish Government to subvent the running of last year’s All-Ireland championships.
So what is the GAA’s place in Northern Ireland? Gaelic games were for many years one of the few means of everyday cultural expression for nationalists and often targeted for that reason. The resentments that boiled over for more than 25 murderous years have proved difficult to address.
Ulster GAA has a laudable track record of working on outreach projects. At last July’s GAA Museum Summer School, there was a presentation on the role of sport in reconciliation in Northern Ireland from Armagh All-Ireland winner, Ulster GAA’s Diarmuid Marsden.
It was striking how much effort goes into small-scale victories like the cross-community Cúchulainn Cup, but the faultlines are never far away.
At a previous summer school in 2017, another well-known former Armagh footballer, Jarlath Burns – whose work in outreach as principal of St Paul’s in Bessbrook has been widely praised – struck a gloomier note when saying that he didn’t feel the GAA was ever going to turn around some unionist perceptions of, and associated disrespect for, the association.
Neither side, though, is blameless in the perceptions displayed to the other.
Last September there was trouble when public health directives were clearly ignored at the Tyrone football final. It was a canary in the coalmine in one sense, as similar disregard was pretty soon on show all over the country before Croke Park abruptly ended the club championship season.
Ulster Council released a statement in which it properly said, “we are living in a pandemic, and the post-match scenes did not portray the association in a positive light.”
First Minister Arlene Foster quickly condemned it on Twitter and the battle lines were drawn for a social media pile-on in which there was virtually no deviation from tribal loyalties.
It underlined the extraordinary job the Ulster Council has done to maintain the primacy of the games throughout a history that runs longer than the current and problematic centenary of the Northern state.