Here is a fascinating and thoughtful article by London-based writer Ciaran Ward on the issues that confront the GAA – I thoroughly recommend that you give it a read.
A Different Ball Game – The Future of the GAA in Northern Ireland
The GAA in Northern Ireland now enjoys an unprecedented level of media coverage and lucrative sponsorship. Despite its high profile however, it is still viewed with suspicion and distrust if not downright hostility by many within the unionist community and continues to court controversy for various reasons. Two recent news stories concerning players Darren Graham and Gerard Cavlan have demonstrated just how significant the impact of the organisation for better or for worse has become.
When Darren Graham threatened to quit playing for his Lisnaskea club in Fermanagh after enduring sustained sectarian abuse, what was originally a low key local issue quickly became front page news on both sides of the border. However, the very fact that Graham, a Protestant (having had family members in the UDR who were murdered by the IRA) was playing Gaelic games is surprising in itself. Ironically, Graham was playing for Lisnaskea Emmets, a club named after an 18th century nationalist martyr who also happened to be a Protestant.
Although Graham, as the writer Fintan O’Toole puts it "had the temerity to punch through the tribal stereotype by playing Gaelic football and not defining himself simply as a Protestant", the grim reality is that sport, religion and politics in Northern Ireland are all inextricably linked. One only has to look at the tediously long debates concerning the Northern Ireland football team, the Irish rugby team or the GAA on the online discussion forum Slugger O’Toole. Such threads are inevitably hijacked by detractors who constantly feel the need to bring politics into sport. The GAA’s ethos is broadly nationalist, but the association claims to be non-sectarian. There is indeed no official bar to membership on the grounds of religion – or even politics for that matter. However the legacy of almost three decades of civil strife and a continued sense of “social apartheid” in Northern Ireland has made it difficult for the GAA to spread its reach beyond the nationalist community. The academic and sports historian Mike Cronin, writing in 2001 summarises the situation effectively:
"In the North during the troubles the GAA has been a central focus for the Catholic and nationalist community under its cover as a sporting association. It has espoused the broad republican and nationalist cause and in doing so has cemented its support amongst the Catholic and nationalist community, whilst bringing about the wrath of Unionist politicians, Loyalists Paramilitaries (sic), the RUC and the British Army. Institutionally and socially the GAA has backed the creation of a thirty-two county Ireland in direct contradiction to the wishes of Ulster’s other tradition and resolutely fails to recruit Protestants to its ranks".
( Source: “Catholics and Sport in Northern Ireland: Exclusiveness or Inclusiveness”, International Sports Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, 2001)
In the Republic this is rarely, if ever an issue, but the GAA in effect has two separate guises on the island, depending on which side of the border you’re on.
Since the formation of the state, the GAA in the Republic has been very much a part of the establishment alongside the Catholic church. Although, not a Catholic organisation per se, it has strong historical links with the church as demonstrated by the naming of several clubs and grounds – not least Croke Park itself – after leading clergymen. The appointment of Jack Boothman, a member of the Church of Ireland from Wicklow as GAA president in 1993 therefore marked something of a publicity coup for the association. But in the divided society of the "fourth green field", things are quite different. Political commentator Mick Fealty puts it succinctly:
"This ideological filter is unique to GAA and, in Northern Ireland, it augments the kind of structural barrier (largely found in education) that also reduces (and almost eliminates) the number of NI Catholics who play rugby, hockey and cricket. So far as we know, it has successfully retarded the number of senior players in Fermanagh to one. As such, we know that few Protestants in Northern Ireland are prepared to sidestep that political obstacle in the way that many basically apolitical (at least viz a viz the constitution) NI Catholics are."
As alluded to above, much of the inherent tension is a product of Northern Ireland’s segregated schooling system. Catholic schools tend to shun the so-called "foreign games" of soccer, rugby and hockey in favour of Gaelic football, hurling and camogie, creating something of a vicious circle. Although rugby is a predominantly Protestant sport in Ulster, it carries none of the perceived sectarian or political trappings of its Gaelic counterpart. The irony here is that a northern nationalist will happily cheer on the Irish rugby team, but will most likely have never been to a rugby match let alone ever played the game.
In the immediate aftermath of the Darren Graham affair the Fermanagh Herald, the local nationalist newspaper which first broke the story published an article calling on the GAA to dump its political baggage once and for all. The writer points out the common misconception (chiefly held by its own members) that the GAA is a non-political organisation. Rule 7(a) affirms that the association should be non-party political, a subtle, but important difference. He goes on to state the uncomfortable truth for the organisation:
"Whether we care to admit it or not the majority of Unionists would find it very difficult to ascribe to the GAA under its present rules. I believe in the 21st century there is no requirement for sport and politics to mix and in the current climate of change it is time for the Association to itself change."
Such a change would be a radical step to take. The controversial naming of clubs and grounds after prominent nationalist figures, the flying of the tricolour and the playing of The Soldier’s Song at important matches have not endeared the association to the unionist community. One particular recent incident which springs to mind was the staging of the hunger strike 25th anniversary commemoration rally at Casement Park, Belfast in 2006, in direct contravention of the association’s ban on the use of premises for party political events. Croke Park responded with a mere slap on the wrist, implying at best a general sense of indifference and at worst turning a blind eye to such behaviour. Much condemnation naturally came from unionists, but also from moderate nationalists, who viewed the choice of venue as unacceptable, particularly when GAA clubs are regularly in receipt of lottery funding from the British government. Had the GAA imposed a hefty fine on the Antrim county board for breach of regulations the response from the unionist community may have been much more positive.
However, the association is not immune to criticism south of the border either – but for rather different reasons. A section of the Dublin-based media views the GAA with scorn and derision. Many in the south, particularly among the cosmopolitan, suburbanite middle classes, the so-called "D4 set" have a sneering attitude towards an organisation which
they look down on as narrow-minded, rustic and perhaps symptomatic of the parochial values of "Old Ireland" which they would dearly love to leave behind. Sunday Independent journalist Declan Lynch in one of his many tedious and predictable rants likened the recent All-Ireland hurling final to a bunch of farmers in fancy dress trying to club a rat to death. One can’t help wondering if Lynch had a bad experience on the school playing field during his youth.
Further north, although the tension and distrust remains, there have nevertheless been steps in the right direction as the peace process has gathered strength. One of the most significant events in the GAA’s history was the abolition in 2001 of the controversial Rule 21 which banned British military and police personnel from participating. The journalist Ronnie Bellew in GAA: The Glory Years of Football and Hurling attempts to explain the thinking behind this rule prior to the events leading up the Good Friday Agreement and the relative stability which followed – and led to its eventual deletion:
"Like many nationalists, GAA members were convinced that there was British army and RUC collusion in some of the attacks on its members and property. Until the entire political and security climate in Ulster changed, Rule 21 was viewed as a necessary statement of independence and identity in a hostile environment".
The bizarre nature of Rule 21 meant that a Garda officer in Lifford, Co. Donegal could play for local GAA club, yet just a stone’s throw away across the river in Strabane, Co. Tyrone his RUC equivalent doing more or less the same job would not have been welcome. Ironically, the GAA as a 32-county body had effectively been enforcing a partitionist mindset in maintaining the rule. When challenged by the media, northern GAA spokesmen had constantly asserted that their association was "non-political" – a somewhat disingenuous claim to have made while the above rule was still in place. Significantly, the only Northern county to vote for Rule 21’s removal was Down, the first team to bring the Sam Maguire cup across the border in 1960.
It is perhaps no coincidence that no All-Ireland titles were won by any of the nine Ulster counties between 1968 and 1991, which as the sports writer Eamonn Sweeney points out was "a spell largely co-terminous with the Troubles, or at least the worst of them". However, the political climate has now transformed to the extent that the PSNI now has its own Gaelic football team. As recently as 10 years ago the very idea of Northern Ireland’s police force playing Gaelic would have seemed preposterous. Another milestone came in 2007 when Croke Park was finally opened up to the "foreign" games of soccer and rugby after much heated debate and a not insignificant degree of opposition.
While the Darren Graham affair was simmering in Fermanagh, another unrelated scandal was unfolding in Tyrone. The All-Ireland medal winner Gerard Cavlan was revealed to be an active participant in the barbaric and illegal sport of dog-fighting after having been secretly filmed by an undercover reporter for the BBC Spotlight programme. Through no fault of its own the GAA had become unfairly implicated and came under pressure to speak out. In response, the Tyrone county board issued a brief statement on its website, affirming its unequivocal condemnation of dog-fighting. No mention of Cavlan was made, but his fall from grace may well have cut short his county career with the Red Hands.
Both stories, although only very tenuously linked illustrate the extent of the influence exerted by the GAA on Northern Ireland society and how widely this has spread in the space of a generation. In one of the most comprehensive works on the association’s role within the Northern Ireland socio-political context How the GAA Survived the Troubles, Desmond Fahy emphasises just how much has changed since his school days in the 1980s:
"If the GAA was the influential sporting and cultural influence we thought it was, why was it never on the television? [A reference to the tendency of the Northern Ireland broadcast media to ignore the GAA roughly up until the mid-1980s]. If it performed such an important function in providing activity for hundreds upon hundreds of children, why did it receive no public funding…?…
By the start of the 1990s rival local television channels were fighting bitterly over the rights to show the games. It was a radical and dramatic transformation but it was an indication of the distance the GAA and its people had travelled in a remarkably short time."
The GAA and the "other side"
There have been positive moves such as cross-community youth initiatives and ground-sharing arrangements with other sports clubs, but a major psychological barrier still needs to be crossed. Short of token gestures and mealy-mouthed platitudes the GAA has not exactly been proactive in encouraging members of the "other" community to participate.
So what of the unionist community’s overall attitude towards the GAA? Anecdotal evidence and media coverage suggest that there isn’t one, as perceptions of the association within that community tend to vary immensely. Former Armagh player Jarlath Burns, in a revealing article in the now defunct Daily Ireland recalls going to watch an Orange parade in South Armagh, thinking he would blend in unrecognised, only to end up in lively conversation with some of the local brethren about his team’s chances in that year’s All-Ireland. Burns’ story reveals that while many of the Protestant/Unionist community may dislike or disapprove of what the GAA stands for, they still follow the games with interest through television and the newspapers, but for obvious reasons will stop short at attending a match.
In recent years stronger links have been forged with the local soccer and rugby-playing fraternities. Tyrone manager Mickey Harte in his book Kicking Down Heaven’s Door recalls being invited to a local rugby club function and underlines the significance of the opportunity, stating "There was a time not so long ago when you couldn’t have dreamed of a Tyrone [Gaelic] football manager being asked to do it, so I thought it was important to acknowledge their gesture with my presence".
The 2003 All-Ireland final between Tyrone and Armagh, the first to be contested between two Ulster teams, jokingly dubbed the "All-British All-Ireland final" generated an unprecedented wave of media coverage across Ireland and beyond. Even some of the British national broadsheets, including The Independent carried articles on it. The Belfast Telegraph on the eve of the match devoted its entire leader column to the historic event, an unusual step for a nominally unionist paper. In a positive and encouraging piece it described the occasion as a "unique chance for the GAA to reach out beyond its national roots" and stressed that the success of any local team, whatever the sport should be a "source of pride" and not a "source of community division".
The comic potential of the phenomenon was not lost on supporters as evidenced by a Tyrone banner which took the form of a red hand of Ulster Stormont flag, an essentially unionist symbol, bearing the legend “For Peter and Ulster”, referring, in a variation of the well-known loyalist slogan to team captain Peter Canavan, nicknamed “God” due to his larger-than-life profile and his omnipresence on the field. Similarly, many of the Armag
h banners carried slogans relating to Orangemen on tour, an ironic reference to the team colour.
A New Dawn?
A couple of days later the victorious Tyrone team having won its first ever All-Ireland title paraded the Sam Maguire cup through the centre of Omagh just five years after a devastating bomb had ripped the heart out of the town, killing 29 people. There was certainly a renewed feelgood factor generated in the town and the surrounding rural area, made all the more poignant by recent memories of the atrocity, many of whose victims were connected with the GAA. But was the euphoria shared by those within the reformed churches and those of a pro-British leaning within the county? It seems fair to assume that for some it certainly was, but most were largely indifferent to the celebrations, while an extremist minority begrudged the success. However it is significant that the then chairman of the local council, Allan Rainey, an Ulster Unionist was pictured in the local paper with the Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, team captain Peter Canavan and the cup. The then chairman of neighbouring Strabane District Council, Jim Emery, also a Unionist had sent his best wishes to the team. One could argue that they were simply doing the diplomatic thing in exercising their civic duties, but small gestures can mean so much.
The GAA has not been left untouched by the rapid social changes sweeping the Republic, and to a lesser extent the North, in recent years. As Irish society becomes increasingly affluent, secular and multicultural the transformations are being felt. Players from mixed race backgrounds like the O’Hailpin brothers of Cork and Dublin’s Jason Sherlock have won All-Ireland medals and made their mark. The sight of black children swinging hurleys is no longer an unusual sight in many towns across the Republic. The question of whether the North will follow suit – thus opening up the possibility of the GAA becoming a more inclusive organisation – remains to be seen. The fact that Darren Graham, after receiving assurances from the Fermanagh county board that sectarianism would not be tolerated was persuaded to return to action is encouraging. Further social changes are possible, but will not take place overnight.
© Ciaran Ward 2007
Ciaran Ward is a free-lance writer based in London. He regularly blogs on a wide range of topics at http://thelonglane.blogspot.com