Monday 21 October 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'Using the GAA to bring about a United Ireland would be self-defeating'

Jarlath Burns and Joe Brolly in recent days both called on Croke Park to back a border poll
Jarlath Burns and Joe Brolly in recent days both called on Croke Park to back a border poll
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

More and more in the social media age, around big issues and particularly those that are the most emotive, the trend is to go all-in with one side of a debate. Eyes wide shut. Once there, an early move is to become entrenched to the point that there's no going back as that would involve compromise and admittance over potentially being wrong.

Most major matters can't work that way however. It ought to be a case of softly, softly.

Take Northern Ireland's past, present and future - which sadly aren't all that different as the brisk circuit nears completion again - as a case study in such short-term, polarised thinking. Coming up on the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the most popular party on one side still refuses to take seats and represent its people in Westminster. Meanwhile the most popular party on the other side consist of a group of creationists who could have their entire belief system thrown off by a dinosaur bone, bigots who in the past said ethnic cleansing was "valuable", and racists that are somehow holding all the United Kingdom and EU to ransom.

If those north of the border think those south of it have a view that it's a place of illogical hate and fringe lunacy dominating their society, they'd be right. There's a reason for that.

What's all this to do with sport exactly, you might ask? A lot actually, given the GAA's place within the cusp of this new history.

For all its internal grumbling and problems to do with sport, the association carries far wider weight and there are calls for it to be used in such a troublesome sphere inhibited by many loathsome politicians. Jarlath Burns this week said the GAA's aim is to "strengthen national identity" and insisted "that doesn't make us neutral on the issue of a border poll, it gives us a position". Joe Brolly backed up this stance repeatedly. He said that "the GAA was founded on the basis of politics. It was to create a sense of identify. A 32-county community".

With Brexit allowing a fresh hope for some due to a possible United Ireland, they aren't alone in champing at the bit and trying to capitalise on a freak set of circumstances via a baffling time in world politics. And regardless of whether you disagree with them, this view should not be dismissed for it has to be digested and its origins understood. For instance with GAA members in the north, theirs is a history that was never close to experienced by the rest. But it works both ways. Those in the north must realise there are large numbers in the Republic that don't see it the way they do, and therefore the tail cannot wag the dog.

For sure Brolly and Burns initially do have a case. The problem is that it's based on the past.

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You don't even have to wade into the official guidebook of the GAA as right at the start is a mission statement. "The overall result is the expression of a people's preference for native ways as opposed to imported ones. Since she has not control over all the national territory, Ireland's claim to nationhood is impaired. It would be still more impaired if she were to lose her language, if she failed to provide a decent livelihood for her people at home, or if she were to forsake her own games and customs in favour of the games and customs of another nation. If pride in the attributes of nationhood dies, something good and distinctive in our race dies with it. Each national quality that is lost makes us so much poorer as a Nation".

Furthermore, on the next page under 'Basic Aims' it notes that "the Association is a National Organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the National Identity in a 32 County Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic Games and pastimes".

But while there in print, it should be seen as a hat-tip to the seedling rather than a Pied Piper of today. After all, are we to strictly believe the other ideals in there about a national-minded manhood, the threat of Irish nationhood dying, the club being the most important unit in a democracy, and the amateur status demanding no payment in cash or "in kind"?

This isn't a time like that of Cusack, who was troubled by falling standards in specifically Irish games and as a remedy to the situation stumbled upon the idea of the GAA. This isn't a time that due to his lack of submission of accounts, saw him forced out and Thomas Croke take over and use the new association as a chance to wipe "foreign and fantastic games" from daily life here.

For how much of the above tallies with the idea of a multi-million pound organisation that has had the airlines of gulf states, French beer companies, and German supermarkets pump money into them, that sell their big events to a British satellite TV company that lies behind a paywall, and that rents out their world-class arena for everything from country-and-western concerts, to American college football, to those very same "foreign and fantastic games"?

You shouldn't pick and choose what suits but that's what is beginning to happen here.

Even if to use the past for present means is cheaply opportunistic.

It's true that for major tracts of its existence and growth, the GAA has been quite naked about being intertwined with Irish nationalism and that made sense. To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose, under heaven. But now it's largely a sporting business, with proceeds helping it fund the positives like togetherness and activity in community life.

It now must stay that way.

There's a misconception in all this that the GAA's own regulations prevent if from being involved as rule 1.11 says it shall be "non-party political". But this isn't party political, merely political. That means with recent referendums it was by choice and not force that it stayed clear, even denying David Gough the chance to wear a wristband in support of gay marriage. However there is a balance to be struck and that has previously been found with members of GAA, who've gotten status via it, of course having a right to express thoughts and opinions as individuals. But be warned, going further than that simply blurs clarity of some vital lines.

Indeed just think what would the GAA have to gain by getting involved in this?

There's long been a chaos and a blindness that has allowed for the oft overlooked part of Northern Irish history across The Troubles and on into the present. It's around the idea the working classes on both sides always had far more in common with each other than their own elites, whose over-riding agenda was a distant and greedy goal. Never was it about the journey, but always the destination, thus those below such elites were thrown under the bus. You can see it right into today with civil servants for months now running the place as the main parties refuse to sit together. If anything, the divide is widening and hardening.

But beyond the politicking, what we saw around the many proud British citizens seizing Irish passports upon Brexit, was the misconception laid bare. Unionism's great fear has been being out of the union, but the fear of many ordinary unionists is their standing in Ireland.

Given their background that's understandable but there seems to be an at-large lack of awareness of the bigger Ireland. As an example, in the Republic, when was the last time you heard anyone asked or asking about what someone's religion was? We've moved on from such deadweight shackled to us by ancient history, and that's something to be very proud of. The next step is making unionists concerned by a potential United Ireland aware of this.

Even if those who still champion the GAA as a key player in bringing down any border see now as the chance to complete a goal via out-of-date methodology, they need to realise using the GAA would be self-defeating anyway. Just look at the DUP's hard-line attitude which has actually seen them do the exact opposite of their plan, bringing about this opportunity of a United Ireland as Sammy Wilson talks about any food shortages being solved with trips to the chipper. The danger here is the other side doing the same. It's why one more perceived republican institution coming in hard could push half of Northern Ireland back to the fringes of the political spectrum where the DUP thrive. We're animals and when cornered tend not to respond the way those doing the cornering want.

Rightly or wrongly, the GAA has been made representative for unionists with its guidebook and flags, anthems and symbolism, and using it for this purpose may mean there's no going back for it. And there's a question here too many like Brolly and Burns overlook.

It can't just be 'Do we want a United Ireland?'

It has to be, 'What would you want that United Ireland to look and feel like'?

For most it's one where all along with their customs are welcome, so instead of using the GAA to show a divided future that will likely enforce legal division anyway, why not use it for something else? An olive branch showing there's nothing scary and everyone can be themselves. We're not talking a club in Tiger's Bay, or massive numbers playing and supporting from unionist strongholds, for idealism comes well after realism. Rather it's about showing it's just sport, and that is an escape for everyone.

That there's nothing to fear in or from that.

For all its issues, the GAA has always had a finger on the pulse of culture in Ireland and, long after its initial objective, it's re-shaped and evolved. Today it embraces all that's good about globalism, difference and change, while uniting people and communities Cusack and Croke could never have envisaged coming here. This would be just one more step down that path.

Softly, softly, it presents the opportunity to be one of its proudest chapters yet.

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