Sport GAA

Friday 22 March 2019

Joe Brolly: 'The GAA must be central to positive change'

‘It is not for us to set up the structures for a new Ireland, but it is our grave and urgent responsibility to ensure that we play a full and constructive role in advocating for and then supporting them’. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
‘It is not for us to set up the structures for a new Ireland, but it is our grave and urgent responsibility to ensure that we play a full and constructive role in advocating for and then supporting them’. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Northern Ireland cannot be saved. There has been no politics at all here for two years now, and more or less none since 1996. The DUP are on top of the world. They hold the balance of power in Westminster, cheer-leading a hard Brexit that internal British government reports say will hit the North hardest, resulting in a contraction of the economy of around nine per cent. Which means a severe, prolonged recession.

The impoverished areas of the North, where the DUP reigns supreme, are wastelands, entirely neglected by their elected representatives. Take a drive up the Shankill Road and you will be appalled at the devastation.

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I have zero interest in sectarianism. I have never voted for Sinn Féin or the SDLP. My adult life has been devoted to the protection and prolonging and cherishing of human life. Doesn't matter a damn to me who or what you are.

There have been some undeniable, fundamental changes in the North. The Peace Process has been spectacularly successful in switching off the violence. At grassroots level, a huge amount of work is being done to combat sectarianism.

I am a criminal barrister working at the cutting edge in Belfast Crown Court. Twenty years ago, sectarian violence was common place and such cases were before the courts daily. Now, a sectarian hate crime involving violence between Catholic and Protestant is extremely rare. I cannot remember the last time I encountered one.

But 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, it is apparent that Northern Ireland is a dysfunctional entity, a pretence that cannot survive.

It is worth remembering the crux of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The signatories accepted that the majority of people in the North wished to remain part of the UK, that a substantial proportion of people in the North and the majority of people on the island wished to bring about a United Ireland and that both these views were legitimate. The agreement specified that the North would remain part of the UK until a majority of both the people of the North and the South voted otherwise, at which time both the UK and Irish governments have a "binding obligation" to implement a United Ireland. Crucially, the right of people in the North to be treated as 'Irish' or 'British' was specifically recognised, with "parity of esteem . . . and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities."

That opportunity has been squandered. Unionism, in particular the now all-powerful DUP, had almost 20 years to sell the idea of a fair, pluralist, respectful Northern Ireland. Twenty years to make us comfortable with the new state, to create a proper partnership, basically to do what they had signed up to do. At that point, nationalism, particularly middle-class nationalism, was open to the idea of a modern, pluralist, stand-alone Northern Ireland.

Peter Robinson did his best to modernise their thinking and behaviour, and could clearly see what was going to happen if they didn't. He extended the hand of friendship to the GAA and generally behaved the way a modern head of state ought to.

Since his resignation, the party, under Arlene Foster, has gone back to being comfortable in its own skin, an old-style triumphalist, sneering, bible-thumping party of creationists, where the Irish language is something to make fun of, homosexuality is an abomination inviting the curse of God, gay blood is poisoned and cannot be donated, and the Catholics can wait in line. Climate change is "a fantasy" (DUP MP Sammy Wilson), and the death penalty should be re-introduced. These people make UKIP look like charmers.

Instead of recognising, even tactically, that they should accommodate others, they have chosen short-term electoral gain and gone right back to the old-style unionism that brought about the civil rights movement in the first place. At their 2014 party conference, Gregory Campbell (who once brought a motion to Parliament to censure the car-maker Kia for building a concept car called 'Provo', the Italian word for 'test') received a standing ovation when he said, "On behalf of our party let me say clearly, and slowly so that even Caitríona Ruane and Gerry Adams understand, we will never agree to an Irish Language Act at Stormont and we will treat their entire wish list as no more than toilet paper." Never mind that an Irish Language Act was specifically agreed by the parties in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, that the DUP specifically committed themselves to an Irish Language Act.

The Irish Language Act is a pretty basic thing you may think. It would merely bring the North into line with European-wide protections for minority languages, allowing for things like bilingual street signs where they are wanted, government funding for promotion of language initiatives, etc. There is a Scots' Gaelic Act in Scotland and a Welsh Language Act in Wales. But the DUP has relentlessly mocked and sneered, and vividly demonstrated to the wider population that doing business with them is an embarrassing waste of time.

"Curry me yoghurt can coca cola," said Gregory Campbell (mocking 'Go raibh maith agat Cean Comhairle') in the Stormont chamber a few years ago, to gales of laughter from his party. Referring to the Irish Language Act in 2017, Arlene Foster said: "If you feed a crocodile, it will only come back for more." Dearie, dearie me.

A few days before Christmas 2017, Paul Givan, the DUP's Communities Minister (you couldn't make it up) stopped the tiny £55,000 Liofa scheme which awarded Irish language bursaries to people from poor backgrounds. The decision flew in the face of advice from government officials who wrote that "the advantages of running the scheme were many and great", just days before Givan killed it off in a gleeful letter which ended with the heart-warming message: "Happy Christmas and happy New Year."

The DUP's Edwin Poots, as health minister, presided over the ban on blood donations from the gay community, saying: "I think that people who engage in high-risk sexual behaviour in general should be excluded from giving blood." Gregory, meanwhile, said gayness was an abomination that "invited the curse of God" and Irene Robinson spoke for her party when she said homosexuality could be cured. Nut jobs.

Now, close your eyes and imagine that this was happening in the South. Yes. Indeed . . .

In 1969, Francie McCloskey, a well-liked 67-year-old farmer, was batoned to death by members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the door-front of Hassans' drapers shop in my home town Dungiven. A bachelor, Francie had come into town that morning to buy his weekly groceries, get a hair-cut in Doran's, have a half pint of stout in McReynolds' Bar and shoot the breeze with the boys. The old man was minding his own business and they killed him anyway. No point calling the police when the police are doing the killing. Francie was the first fatality of what came to be known across the world as 'The Troubles'. His murder changed everything. It was covered up by the state. No-one was even arrested.

In the North, throughout the next 30 years, it was the GAA that sustained us. It gave us our sense of identity, our ideals, and contrary to what might have been expected, enforced a remarkable social cohesion on us. It was them and us, and the us was the GAA.

This is easy enough to illustrate. If you take 1969 as the starting point, and wind forward 22 years, children of the troubles began winning senior football All-Irelands: in 1991, 1993, 1994, with Tyrone losing by a point to Dublin in the 1995 final. Soon afterwards, the Tyrone/Armagh period of dominance began, with another four All-Irelands coming North. This merely reflects the enormous importance of the GAA and its ideals to the GAA folk of the six counties. We survived the Troubles because of the GAA.

Margaret Thatcher famously said "there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and individual women and there are families. People must look to themselves first." This ethos is alien to us. We know each other and support each other. We are there for each other in our hour of need. We are not mere consumers, trying to win at all costs against our neighbours. We are GAA people, which means we are communitarians.

A story: A few years ago, as part of our organ donation campaign, we held an awareness day in Belfast. I was there with the transplant teams, organ donation nurses and all the rest of it. I had invited the DUP Health Minister Jim Wells. It is obviously of great importance that the Health Minister understand this life-and-death area, in order that he can make informed judgments about what to support or not to support. Throughout the event, Jim sneeringly described me (in the presence of stunned transplant surgeons and nurses) as "the Londonderry GAA player who brought the Sam Maguire back to the United Kingdom." I laughed it off, but this was the Health Minister. When I mentioned this on BBC last week he told some journalists that it was a joke. "I was just pulling his leg," he told the News Letter. Hilarious.

GAA folk up here are feeling isolated and under attack. Brexit is being cheer-leaded unopposed by the DUP. Sinn Féin have abdicated all responsibility for this by refusing to take their seats in Westminster, something - given the numbers - that could have made all the difference. Instead, Mary Lou and the rest play to their own constituencies and pretend there is an important principle at stake. Presumably, this is the important principle of living in the past.

It is time for the most important community and cultural organisation on the island to show leadership, to show loyalty to its northern members, and to ready itself to support the poll for Irish unity which is coming down the tracks within the next 10 years. The GAA's mission statement is set out on page four of its 'Official Guide'. Unlike any other mere sporting body, the Association is primarily a cultural organisation. We have never been non-political. Rather, we are non-party political. Let us take Rule 21, which banned the RUC and British Army from being members during the Troubles. What could be more political? In the wake of the peace process, in 2001 the GAA were the first public body on this island to endorse and promote the Patten reforms, which abolished the RUC and created the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. A Special Congress was convened, and Rule 21 was revoked. In so doing, the GAA endorsed the new policing system in the North before the SDLP, the Church, and a full six years before Sinn Féin, who waited until January 2007 to get real.

The endorsement of and support for a unity poll by the GAA is entirely legitimate, peaceable and reflective of our membership's views. Not only that, but it is in our mission statement:

"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. Today, the native games take on a new significance when it is realised that they have been a part, and still are a part, of the Nation's desire to live her own life, to govern her own affairs."

A forum needs to be established that must include leaders of civic society north and south, political leaders, trade unions, leading business figures, LGBT representatives, sporting bodies, the travelling community, the churches, etc, to start the process of designing a new Ireland. Northern Ireland cannot be saved. But it cannot be subsumed.

We need to start preparing for a completely new, non-sectarian Ireland, based on a liberal, socially responsible ideology. We need a new constitution where British citizenship and rights are enshrined. We need to start talking about national reconciliation, how the new All-Ireland health service will work, where the seat of government will be, and so on. We need to think about things like whether at the inception of the new state, the role of Taoiseach will be a joint one, akin to the First Ministers in the North, with a politician of unionist denomination having equal power. The EU will have to play a key role in all of this, starting with a unity fund that will run into many, many billions. The point is, we need to start working all this stuff out, and soon.

The GAA has - in the past - shown great political (not party political) leadership, regardless of the consequences. Our role in Irish society has been to advocate positive change, and to ensure that our members throughout the island have been supported, something that successive southern governments have conspicuously failed to do.

It is not for us to set up the structures for a new Ireland, but it is our grave and urgent responsibility to ensure that we play a full and constructive role in advocating for and then supporting them. There is no leadership in Northern society. Indeed there is no politics at all.

The GAA folk of the North must not be thrown to the wolves.

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