GAA patriot games are raising new tensions
My comments on the GAA a couple of weeks ago drew a surprisingly large response on the Telegraph website.
Reactions ranged from those who regard my view that the GAA should reach out further to the non-nationalist community as absurd and unrealistic, to those who feel I had a point.
I hope the debate continues inside and outside the GAA. Gaelic football has an opportunity to play on a much wider sporting canvas than ever before in Northern Ireland, thanks to the success of my native county Tyrone, winning three All-Ireland titles in six years.
Television has brought gaelic games into the homes of many who have no GAA tradition. Sponsorship and public funds direct millions of pounds annually to gaelic grounds. The GAA has opened its headquarters at Croke Park to soccer and rugby. At local level, there are many examples of increasing cross-community cooperation between gaelic and other sporting organisations.
Despite all this, many people remain inhibited — sometimes even hostile — towards the GAA. That is because of the sport's undiluted links with Irish nationalism, epitomised by the playing of the Soldier's Song and flying of the Tricolour at grounds in the north.
Does gaelic football really need such overt symbols as anthems and flags? It is a unique attraction on this island. Playing the patriot game raises barriers that don't need to be there in the sporting world of modern-day Ireland.
While on the subject of sport, the minister responsible, Gregory Campbell, is reported to be on the point of rejecting the Maze Stadium plan. As readers of this column may have noted, I am a proponent of the Maze. While there is a strong lobby among fans against having a stadium so far outside Belfast, what is the alternative?
Certainly, no viable site appears on the Belfast horizon other than the refurbishment of the existing three stadia at Windsor Park, Casement Park and Ravenhill. All are hopelessly inadequate, surrounded by residential streets with an obvious lack of access for major matches.
Northern Ireland needs a stadium that seats at least 25,000 people but if Windsor Park were ever to achieve that, I shudder to think how many miles away some fans might have to park to get there. If ever there was a case of throwing good money after bad, then this is surely it.
I have heard it suggested that the cash-rich GAA could simply steal a march on all the soccer and rugby fraternity by constructing its own new stadium somewhere in mid-Ulster, or even at the Maze, for up to 40,000 fans and thus ensuring that teams like Tyrone and Armagh do not have to play their big matches across the border at inaccessible venues or even further away at Croke Park.
It would be a cruel irony for the IFA and Northern Ireland's soccer fan base if this were to happen and they were forced to go cap in hand to the GAA to accommodate big international soccer and rugby matches in the future, as has happened down south with Croke Park.
If Minister Campbell does reject the Maze Stadium plan, it will be a retrograde step for soccer and sport in this country. Windsor Park may have the tradition but it does not have the setting for a 21st-century sports stadium.