Wednesday 17 July 2019

Comment - Heffron’s tragic tale opens up an uncomfortable discussion that GAA chiefs must take lead in

Peadar Heffron. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Peadar Heffron. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Declan Bogue

Sitting there in the main stand of Breffni Park on the first Saturday of April 2011, hours before the crowds arrived for a NFL game between Cavan and Louth, the phone buzzed.

The "Where are you?" was out of my now-wife's mouth before I had a chance to say hello. I wasn't at home and that's all that mattered. Because home then was at Highfield Close in Omagh, just around the corner from Healy Park.

From our apartment front door, 30 yards across the Glencam Road was where Ronan Kerr, a 25-year-old PSNI recruit, parked his car.

Some time in the night, someone came along and planted a bomb on that car. And when Kerr went to go to Enniskillen for a work shift, that bomb exploded, killing him.

Nobody knows how they might react in that situation. Natural vanity leads us to believe we would spring into action. But until you are among the smoke and the flames and the flesh you would have no idea. I count myself lucky I wasn't there that day at home, to absorb it all.

For the dissident republicans, this was a sick result, designed to divide people. Memories from that heinous act stay in the mind.

The dignity of his mother, Nuala. The disgusted reaction from all corners of society. The fact that the Omagh half-marathon, with a route that travelled along the Glencam Road, was staged just hours earlier.

In the weeks after and with police officers on house calls conducting enquiries, the revelations were chilling. We were asked if we had noticed lamposts going on and off in the middle of the night. The bombers had found a way to tamper with the lights to carry out their deeds and had a couple of dry runs.

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And the funeral, with members of Ronan's GAA club, Beragh Red Knights of Tyrone, handling the arrangements alongside the PSNI, indeed, passing the coffin from one to the other.

The image of representatives of Tyrone GAA, with Mickey Harte, captain Brian Dooher and chairman Ciaran McLaughlin shouldering the coffin with Kerr's PSNI hat on top, was particularly powerful. It sent out a message. It sent out plenty of messages.

Because society struggles when it comes out of a deep, embedded conflict. Sometimes, people slip, do the wrong thing. It happened to Peadar Heffron, who detailed how he felt the GAA community of his club, Creggan Kickhams, shunned him after he informed them he was to join the first tranche of Catholic recruits into the reformed police service. It was too soon for some.

On November 4, 2001, the RUC was reformed as the PSNI. Thirteen days later, the GAA formed a Special Congress to debate, vote on and ultimately delete Rule 21, which was a ban from taking part in GAA activities for members of Crown forces.

Heffron was one of the first recruits, filled with good intentions.

This is all hindsight now, but the GAA removed a contentious rule, and found themselves completely ill-equipped to deal with the consequences.

There was no concrete policy around it other than to admit a section of society who were previously banned.

On a sunny day in the summer of 2013, I was at The Dub venue in Belfast, watching the Gardaí play a PSNI selection at Gaelic football as part of the World Police and Fire Games.

I caught sight of a man in a wheelchair. Peadar Heffron. He had suffered horrendous injuries just over a year before Kerr's murder through a similar device.

I went over to speak with him for a bit, introduced myself and asked if at some time he might be prepared to do an interview.

He was holding a hurl in his hand, tapping it off the grass and there was no disguising a deep anguish that was right there on the surface as he politely turned me down.

I felt somewhat intrusive, gave him my regards and left.

When Heffron told his team-mates he was joining the police, he might have hoped for people to have made a similar journey in their minds.

But you cannot account for others, the values they hold, the experiences they had. Some may have been mistreated by the RUC.

Some Creggan members have intimated that not everybody in the club wanted him banished. Everyone carries their own perceptions and guilts.

In 2017 it would be nice to think that if a club member made the same announcement as Heffron that it would raise no eyebrows. This peace process is young, and it has many more miles to travel.

Can the GAA do more? As they said in their statement on Monday, they recently hosted an International Police Gaelic Football Tournament in Belfast. They carry full-page ads in the All-Ireland final matchday programme.

"The GAA can only do a certain amount. People can change rules, (but) changing attitudes takes a lot longer. And a lot depends on what happens at local level," said Dr Maurice Hayes, the first Catholic Ombudsman in Northern Ireland.

Policing this part of the world is always an inexact science. But if Heffron and the superb piece by Joe Brolly in the 'Sunday Independent' have opened up an uncomfortable conversation, then that's fine. Successful societies have these and emerge the better for them.

Heffron has opened up several sores. In time, the GAA should make a gesture to him and to others who took risks, and became the last frontiersmen.

Irish Independent

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