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Thu 31-Dec-2009 11:16
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A Different Ball Game - The Future of the GAA in Northern Ireland -
Part One of a Two Part series...
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. Last year's 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.
Part Two to follow ... 'Northern Exposure'
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