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GAA chief hails Northern Ireland Secretary of State's attendance at Pairc Esler in Newry

By Declan Bogue

The visit of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire to Saturday night's Dr McKenna Cup final, is being hailed as key to understanding what the GAA community has to offer, by President of the Ulster Council, Michael Hasson.

Mr Brokenshire's attendance in Pairc Esler, Newry, was the first time a serving Secretary of State has attended a GAA event in Northern Ireland.

His predecessor, Theresa Villiers, previously attended the 2013 All-Ireland Gaelic football final between Dublin and Mayo, in Croke Park.

It represents a significant gesture by the GAA, following the attendance of then-First Minister Peter Robinson at the 2012 Dr McKenna Cup final between the same opponents in Armagh's Athletic Grounds.

"The GAA is behind the peace initiative and that's the way forward. That's the way the Ulster Council feel and the way the GAA nationally feel," reflected Mr Hasson after the game. 

"I feel we have to get our people together. If ministers want to come and see our games, we are welcoming and open, to see what we can give of our Irish culture, the benefits we have from that."

He added, "I do see, with the likes of James Brokenshire here today, that he sees for himself what we do have.

"For me, that's the key to making a decision. When you go to see for yourself what people do. That's what I would encourage all of our ministers to do, come to see what we have and see why we get so much enjoyment out of it.

"To think that in the month of January that the Ulster Council can run a McKenna Cup competition with 50,000 attending ten matches.

"In any other sport in January, I don't know any other sport that can do that, so there is something appealing in our Gaelic games."

The game was also attended by newly-appointed leader of Sinn Féin, Michelle O'Neill, who sat close by.

Brokenshire's attendance came through newly-appointed Ulster Council Secretary Brian McAvoy, who in his previous employment worked in the Stormont Administration.

He made an offer to attend the match, with Brokenshire flying over from his base in England especially for it.

While the contest itself was far from a classic, Brokenshire was complimentary towards the players in his conversation throughout the game, sitting beside Hasson.

"He has a background in cricket, even allowing for the differences in the two games. But he is into sport and he enjoyed the game," revealed the Ulster Council President, who presented the Dr McKenna cup afterwards to Tyrone's Peter Harte. 

Hasson added, "He was astonished by the non-stop element of the way the game is played. There were very little stoppages in the game and it is something we perhaps in Gaelic games take for granted. If our players go down, they get up unless they are injured.

"To say he was astonished might be too strong of a word, but he was certainly complimentary about the speed of the game, the fitness of the players, their close control of the ball.

"Tyrone played good football today, going for their sixth McKenna Cup in a row and there were players pushing for their National League places as well."

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