Tuesday 28 March 2017

Joe Brolly: How I faced down IRA man who branded me a traitor

The Tri Colour flies at a GAA match
The Tri Colour flies at a GAA match

Joe Brolly

In 2008, Martin McAleese, husband of then President Mary, attended a meeting between Loyalist commanders and community leaders in Belfast. Ryan Feeney, a high ranking member of the Ulster Council of the GAA, was also in attendance.

The Loyalists were interested in the GAA's community model and how it could help regenerate Protestant ghettoes in the city. The summit took place in the community centre on the Shankill Road.

After Martin and Ryan had made a lengthy presentation, the two men shared some tea and buns with the group. Jackie McDonald, the notorious UDA brigadier, warmly shook their hands. "Great to have you here," he said. "Thanks Jackie," said Feeney, "I wonder what would have happened if we'd come here ten years ago?" Jackie looked Feeney straight in the eye and said, "We'd have shot you and kidnapped him."

I thought of that exchange earlier last week when Jarlath Burns described the national anthem and the tricolour as "divisive" and said he would support giving them up at GAA games if it would help to persuade some Unionists to support us.

"It wouldn't cost me a thought," he said. "If I thought for a moment that Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott would become our greatest fan, I would get rid of them surely." It is worth reminding ourselves that Tom is the man who proudly boasted at his party conference in 2010 that he would "never go to a GAA game or a gay march."

The reality is that no appeasement would satisfy the Tom Elliotts of this world. The whole point of a civilised society is to respect difference, not abandon what we are in order to satisfy extremists. The world is awash with political correctness. Its main function is to make us feel embarrassed about who we are and what we think, and to create a world that is entirely bland.

‘I think perhaps that in future, it would be safer to call the trophy the Jedward Cup’
‘I think perhaps that in future, it would be safer to call the trophy the Jedward Cup’

A few years ago, Flintshire County Council in Wales renamed the traditional English dessert Spotted Richard on the basis that Spotted Dick might offend female customers at the canteen. Tesco and the Gloucester NHS Trust followed suit. Where does it end?

The Sam Maguire Cup would have to go. Maguire, after all, was a member of a team of IRB assassins in London. As head of intelligence there, he was the alleged mastermind behind the murder of Sir Henry Wilson in London in 1922. Glorifying the memory of a man who put bullets in the brains of Englishmen just isn't on. I think perhaps that in future, it would be safer to call the trophy the Jedward Cup.

And what of all those hundreds of GAA clubs that glorify terrorists? There are O'Donovan Rossas all over the country. Bad enough that Rossa was married three times and had 16 children. Worse still, he was the first Republican to orchestrate a bombing campaign on the British mainland. His so-called 'Dynamite Campaign' ran throughout the 1880s in London, bringing terror to the populace. Or Roger Casement, who gives his name to many clubs and the iconic Belfast venue. Casement was a gun runner and a rebel who was executed by the British during the Great War and buried in lime. In 1965, his remains were repatriated to Ireland and he was afforded a State funeral. Almost half a million people filed past his coffin.

As for the anthem, Phil Coulter or Stock Aitken Waterman could write one for us.

After we won the All-Ireland in 1993, we sang 'The Town I Loved So Well' on The Late Late Show. A fortnight later, Phil Coulter arrived at a team meeting wearing a lime green suit and lemon tie and presented us all with a signed photograph of himself at the grand piano. That's the sort of man we need to write a national anthem.

I don't suppose there is any point in explaining that the Tricolour denotes peace between the orange and the green. It'll have to go as well. Perhaps we could replace it with a plain white flag, or one with a little kitten.

The GAA does not need to apologise to anyone. My own club St Brigid's were the first to play the PSNI. At that time, it was a thorny issue and we played them amidst a media carnival. I gave interviews to all the broadcasters strongly supporting the game. Afterwards, we ate and drank with the coppers in the clubhouse, and why wouldn't we?

A few days later, graffiti appeared in Belfast city centre reading, 'SHAME ON YOU JOE'. That same afternoon, I was walking through the thronged great hall of the High Courts when someone shouted "Brolly you traitor."

Phil Coulter
Phil Coulter

I looked over and spotted an ex-IRA man sitting with some other boys of the old brigade. I made a beeline for them and the heads went down.

"What was that Seán?" I said, shaking hands with them, "I didn't hear you properly."

"I said you were a traitor," he mumbled.

"Jesus Seán," I said, " I thought it was ok to play an oul football match against them after you handed over your guns."

The GAA in Ulster has been doing massive work on reconciliation. Joint GAA, rugby and soccer camps have been on the go for years. In my own club we have mixed teams at every level. My under 16 group this year had seven players from the Unionist tradition and, you know what, nobody gives a damn what religion they happen to be. The brilliant All Saints Ballymena under 14 feile champions from 2014 had six Protestant players in their starting 15. There is a similar pattern at every age group. This is real reconciliation, not the phoney kind demanded publicly by Tom Elliott or Willie Frazer.

Before Martin McAleese and Ryan Feeney left that meeting in the Shankill Community Centre back in 2008, they arranged to bring the group to the upcoming All-Ireland hurling semi-final. Four weeks later, a coach pulled up at the centre in Belfast and 50 Loyalists from Tiger's Bay, the Shankill and Lurgan trooped on board to be greeted by Ryan. One of them was wearing a Dublin jersey.

"You like it?" he said to Feeney, "Up the Dubs!"

After the game, in the splendid surrounds of the VIP suite of the Hogan Stand, Ryan asked the leader of the group what his overall thoughts on the experience were.

Jarlath Burns: Would remove Tricolour at GAA matches
Jarlath Burns: Would remove Tricolour at GAA matches

"We need a Protestant GAA."

Now that is a good idea.

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