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Thu 31-Dec-2009 11:15
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A Different Ball Game - The Future of the GAA in Northern Ireland -
Part Two of Ciarán Ward's incisive analysis...
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 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 Armagh 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 the
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