Tuesday 16 January 2018

No borders in united island

Eamonn Sweeney

I f you want to get a sense of what an extraordinary moment it was when Christy Cooney, Brian Dooher and Mickey Harte carried Ronan Kerr's coffin in the Tyrone village of Beragh last week, it's worth looking at what happened 30 years ago.

On April 8, 1981, five Tyrone GAA clubs, Brockagh Emmets, Derrytresk, Clonoe O'Rahillys, Brockaville Owen Roe and Coalisland published a newspaper advertisement asking their supporters to vote for Bobby Sands, then on hunger strike, in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election. Obviously many of those supporters did so as Sands was elected MP for that constituency the following day. He died less than a month later.

That three decades later the president of the GAA and the manager and captain of the Tyrone football team carried the coffin of a member of the police force of Northern Ireland, murdered by self-styled republicans, says a great deal about the journey which the Association has been on since. More importantly, it illustrates the seismic changes which have occurred in the North.

The election of Bobby Sands put an end to the comforting canard peddled that the IRA campaign had no support at all in the communities from which it drew its members. This was a hard thing to face for members of the political and media establishment in the Republic and their reaction was, in many cases, to start demonising the nationalist community in the North.

They might only be divided from us by a few miles and a border but apparently Northern Catholics were a breed apart, a cruel and ignorant people who verged on the psychopathic. I'm not exaggerating here, this is how it got written sometimes. As inoffensive a character as Mary McAleese was portrayed as a menace to society.

The GAA at national level took no sides during the conflict in the North and did remarkably well in steering away from controversy. Yet local loyalties did manifest themselves at club level in some of the areas most greatly affected by the Troubles. The grounds of the St Theresa's GAA club in West Belfast are named after the hunger strikers Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty, those of the St Patrick's club in Fermanagh are named after an IRA man Louis Leonard, the grounds of the Dromintee club in Armagh are named after IRA men Jim Lochrie and Seán Campbell. In Derry, the Dungiven hurling club is named after the INLA hunger striker Kevin Lynch. In Tyrone, there is an annual football tournament held in Galbally in memory of the hunger striker Martin Hurson.

It is very easy for an outsider to criticise these gestures and shake a righteous fist at those clubs for condoning terrorism. But the fact is that Northern Ireland was an abnormal society. In a normal society a young man like Kevin Lynch wouldn't have starved himself to death, Louis Leonard wouldn't have been shot dead in his shop by paramilitaries from the other side, Jim Lochrie, who was just 19, wouldn't have died in a premature landmine explosion. They would have gone on to enjoy decent GAA careers. Lynch had captained Derry to an under 16 All-Ireland hurling title, Lochrie had played minor football for Armagh, Leonard one of was St Patrick's star players.

But the society and times were not normal and this affected people on both sides of the divide. I remember watching David Ervine on telly in the early days of the peace process and thinking that if an articulate, intelligent and decent guy like this could have become a Loyalist paramilitary, the situation can't have been a simple matter of good and evil.

The GAA took some severe stick back then for not allowing members of the British Army and the RUC to join the Association. But their reticence on this matter reflected the abnormality of the situation. In a place and time where Seán Browne, the chairman of Bellaghy in Derry, could be murdered after locking up the club for the night simply because he was a GAA man, where Aidan McAnespie from Aughnacloy could be shot dead by a member of the British Army while walking to a match and Colm McCartney, from Derry, and Seán Farmer, from Tyrone could be murdered in Armagh, by a gang some of whose members had been in the UDR, while on their way back from an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, there was no point pretending this was simply a sporting question.

I haven't a clue what it must have felt like to try and live a normal life in the midst of such mayhem. But it can't have been easy for GAA people in the North, many of whom felt they were singled out for harassment by members of the security forces who appeared to regard the playing of Gaelic football and hurling as subversive acts in themselves. They were not inclined to give the benefit of doubt to the British Army and the RUC.

Yet, and it still seems astounding to those of us who grew up with the notion that the Troubles were a problem which defied solution, things changed. The Peace Process worked, the guns fell silent, the bombs weren't planted anymore, a generation of youngsters in the North could grow up in a normal society. And the GAA acknowledged this change by removing the ban. The Police Service of Northern Ireland replaced the RUC and among its recruits were GAA members, like Ronan Kerr who played with the Beragh Red Knights.

The new Northern Ireland needed the likes of Ronan Kerr if it was going to turn promise into reality. Ulster Council president Aodán ó Fearghail put it well when he said, "Any civilised society needs a police force, we are committed to ensuring that people from nationalist backgrounds remain in and are committed to the police force." The presence of a young man like Ronan Kerr would show that the PSNI was far from being the RUC under another name. It would show that Northern Ireland had a police force for all the people.

The extent to which this aspiration has been achieved was shown by the reaction to his brutal murder. The GAA and the Orange Order were united in condemning the killing as were Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson. Whatever their differences, all sides of the political and cultural spectrum were united in a message of repudiation. They are for the bright future instead of the bloody past, for peace instead of war.

And the conciliatory gestures came from all sides. This was the first time that the GAA had been officially represented at the funeral of a Northern Irish police officer. But the memorial service was also the first time that Peter Robinson had attended a Catholic Mass. And it seems that the Orange Order, who forbid members to attend Catholic services, won't be taking any disciplinary action against Ulster Unionist party leader Tom Elliott or his deputy Danny Kennedy, both of whom are members of the Order and went to the funeral mass as well. A spokesman said: "It is important that the Kerr family know that they have widespread support throughout the community and the Orange Order offers sincere sympathy to them for the loss of their son." That gesture also says a lot about the changes in the North.

In a strange way the killers, who would no doubt claim to be in favour of a 'United Ireland,' managed to achieve that objective last week. Because, North and South, Ireland was united in revulsion against their actions. This time around it seems safe to say that there really is no popular support for these acts of violence. These days there are democratic outlets now for nationalists, the kind which weren't there 30 years ago when the unionist parties combined to crush even the most rudimentary attempts at power-sharing. And if people are united as they were last week, does the colour of the phone boxes matter that much in the end? Nothing spoke as eloquently of the repudiation of the killers by the community from which they sprang as the sight of Mickey Harte and Brian Dooher carrying the coffin. Thirty years ago, the crowd at the Ulster final between Down and Armagh in Clones observed a minute's silence for the hunger strikers and applauded as "about 100 young men walked onto the pitch and formed themselves in an 'H.'" That was where we were then, this is where we are now. The shouldering of the coffin mattered because there is no other organisation with the communal strength of the GAA, no other body which can claim so convincingly to speak for the nationalist community.

The ban on security force members was sometimes used by unionists to claim that the GAA was a sectarian organisation. In fact, there's never been anything sectarian about the GAA. Jack Boothman, a Protestant, rose to become president of the Association. But what the ban did indicate was the GAA's identification with the interests of Northern nationalists at a time when that community was largely ignored or perceived as an embarrassment by significant sections of society down here.

There's going to be a lot of guff talked about the Queen coming to Croke Park. If you get a fiver for every time you read the word 'maturity' in connection with the visit you'll be able to bail out the banks by the end of the summer. But the visit is largely a sideshow. The GAA's gesture of solidarity with the PSNI is far more significant.

It's good that the GAA said it hopes the Queen's visit "will encourage a greater interest and participation in our games by our fellow Irishmen and women of the unionist tradition". That strikes the right note. Because our relationship with the unionist community who share this island with us will always be more important than our relationship with England. The most important reason that the Queen should be treated with respect at Croke Park is because of the affection in which she is held by many Ulster unionists. If Peter Robinson can go to mass, we should be able to manage that much.

Last week showed that we're living on a new island. And if the idea that the Queen's visit might be followed by a surge of protestant interest in Gaelic games seems far-fetched, ponder the case of Darren Graham. Graham had every excuse for growing up with a bitter grudge against the nationalist community. His father Ronnie and uncle Cecil, both members of the UDR, were shot dead by the IRA in 1981. Yet Darren Graham went on to play senior hurling and under 21 football for Fermanagh. That he suffered sectarian abuse which made him consider quitting the game shows that there's still a long way to go.

But Graham came back and played for Lisnaskea Emmets this February when they defeated St James of Galway in the All-Ireland intermediate football club final, to become the first Fermanagh team ever to win an All-Ireland title. That his return to action received about .00000001% of the coverage occasioned by his brief retirement says a lot about the way the North still gets reported. We love to wallow in those tales of a dark province where ancient enmities will forever hold sway.

In fact, bearing in mind where the place was only a couple of decades back the progress which has been made is nothing short of miraculous. Neither side had a monopoly on suffering back then and both sides deserve the height of credit for the changes since. And while there are no doubt GAA members who find it embarrassing to have grounds and tournaments named after IRA men, and unionists who find it downright reprehensible, there's no point in rewriting history. That history might be grim but it happened.

These days we're in a whole new ball game. Now it's Police Constable Ronan Kerr who should have a ground named after him and a tournament organised in his honour. I've no doubt it will happen.

May he rest in peace with Seán Browne, with Ronnie Graham and with Bobby Sands. And may this put an end to it all. Because it's over. It's over for good.


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