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'I'd haul down tricolour if it would make GAA more acceptable to unionists'

Published 28/09/2015

Interview: Eamon Mallie (far left) with former GAA star Jarlath Burns
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An extract from Eamonn Mallie's interview with former GAA player Jarlath Burns.

On being a republican:

Q. Would you describe yourself as a nationalist, a republican or what?

A. I would describe myself as a republican.

Q. How do you define that?

A. I would define it as someone who is interested in pluralism and diversity - I would be very liberal in my views. Obviously as a republican I would like to see a 32 county Ireland. I don't believe anybody should ever be killed for that aspiration, but that would be where I would come, I would be very much a GAA republican in the sense that I would see our games and our culture our national identity as paramount.

On many Protestants disliking the GAA

Q. Why do so many Protestants dislike the GAA?

A. Well if you look at the things I suppose which are important and significant within the GAA, which is our Irish identity and our culture and our traditions, and then the areas where the GAA would have crossed into the political arena - like the importance of the flying the flag at all of our matches, playing the national anthem before our matches, a community like the unionist community, which is a besieged community and a worried community and an anxious community, would see the GAA, you would understand where they might see the GAA as repellent to them and as objectionable to them, and we have to understand that…

Q. Stop there, isn't that rather offensive what you've just said about the Protestant community seeing themselves as a besieged community, they mightn't see it that way at all - are you justified in saying that?

A. I don't think it is shock therapy for anybody to learn that there would be a mentality within the unionist community to feel that they are besieged - you only have to listen to many of them talking when they see an awful lot of the changes which occur around them like the loss of their symbolism, the taking down of the flag - as chipping away at their identity, and they see the GAA as something which is very majestic, very stately, something which is 'seasmhach' as they would say in Irish, as representative of the nationalist community, and I suppose it feeds into their anxieties and we have to understand that and go beyond that, try and reach out to the unionist community and say you have nothing to fear from liking the GAA…

Q. Hold on, who are the Protestants who think there is anything majestic or noble about the GAA? I've a friend from Tyrone, he lives a few feet away from GAA pitch, you know what he told me - he'd nearly hold his nose passing a GAA pitch, he sees that as a pitch upon which IRA individuals trained, he sees that as foreign territory to him, how do we reach that guy?

A. Well look if IRA members trained in a GAA pitch it certainly wasn't with the acquiesce of the GAA as an association…

Q. I am not saying that, it's perception, perception…

AWell exactly, and one of the things that we have to do as an association is to try and alter that perception and show the GAA as an open, welcoming organisation to all faiths, that it's anti-sectarian and if you look at the comments of Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, you'll see that that's the perception that he has of the GAA.

On hauling down the tricolor at GAA games

Q. Yes he has said that he's been to Clones, he's been to Croke Park and that he's been to Casement Park etc. but I want to now talk and discuss with you the sacramentals, what we shall call the sacramentals of the GAA - Tom Elliot for example said, I won't go to a GAA match where the green, white and gold flag is flying. Must that flag fly there at championships etc? Is it absolutely necessary for it to fly?

A. If you were to ask my own personal opinion, flags, anthems, the older I get the less they mean to me. If somebody was to propose in the morning that they were going to get rid of them all, it wouldn't bother me at all. It's not one of the core values that I have. It's an overtly political thing, it's something which is specific to national borders, it's nothing to do with cultural - if I thought for a moment that suddenly Tom Elliott would become our greatest fan if we lost all of those things I would get rid of them surely.

The problem is that you could do all of those things and there would still be a section of unionism that would still feel repelled by the GAA because of our love of the Irish language for example.

The Irish language doesn't fly a flag or sing an anthem, and yet there are some people who are repelled by that and I think that the challenge for us as nationalists, Catholic, republican - whatever you want to call it, is to try and make all of those things into a framework that they are not seen as repellent or objectionable or repulsive but inclusive.

Q. Are you saying then that you'd have no reluctance in hauling down the green, white and orange flag flying over a GAA pitch, your own club or any other GAA club throughout Northern Ireland or without the island of Ireland?

A. Yeah, it wouldn't cost me a thought - and you know this, flags are divisive - do we need to say that any louder in this territory?

When I drove down to here, there were flags on every side of the road.

They are divisive, they are something which is a very vulgar sign of what you are, they are not inclusive.

All they say is - this is me - this is what I am, this is my territory, it's all about me, a flag is all about you, it's not about reaching out to anybody else, so as I get older in life, maybe and wiser in life things which used to be sacramental to me no longer are.

People are more important than flags and anthems and all of those things.

On putting an end to the playing of Amhran na bhFiann

Q. So would you have any reluctance in putting an end to the playing of Amhran na bhFian' (Irish national anthem, The Soldiers' Song) at championship matches etc?

A. I am not saying that if anything was up to me that I would do any of these things…

Q. But your personal opinion, would you, if you thought it would help the GAA to reach out into that Protestant unionist community, would you delete, remove Amhran na bhFiann?

A. Yeah, I would have no objection to any of that.

Flags and anthems for me are divisive. I mean I can't say it any clearer than that - and I know that is not going to happen in the GAA. I know that there is a certain part of me that whenever in an All-Ireland final we stand up and we sing the anthem and we face the tricolour that makes me very proud as a GAA man.

But we also must accept that there are those people for whom that is offensive and we must be cognisant of those and we must understand them and therefore we must try and not be repelled whenever those people say "I'm sorry but the GAA, because of these trimmings does not speak to me."

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