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Brave Jarlath Burns sets an example we should all follow

By Gail Walker

Published 29/09/2015

Interview: Eamon Mallie (far left) with former GAA star Jarlath Burns
Interview: Eamon Mallie (far left) with former GAA star Jarlath Burns

Jarlath Burns' considered remarks in an interview with Eamonn Mallie on the digital station Irish TV amplified views he had articulated earlier in the year in relation to his take on Irishness, republicanism/nationalism, unionism, Protestants and the GAA.

No one can question Burns' credentials as a GAA stalwart and advocate; likewise, his cultural allegiances and his politics are also obvious and open.

It is the manner in which he has come to interpret his politics and their expression which has struck many as fresh, original and courageous; and others as naive, disrespectful and treacherous.

For me, though, Burns' views represent exactly the type of thinking and behaviour which is what is required to move our society, our community, our island and our people forward through this century.

We all know the impact of "flags and emblems". It has become a bit of running joke how important "flegs" have become to unionists. But they are, in fact, deeply embedded in nationalist culture also - "Wrap the green flag round me, boys", anyone? "Take it down from the mast, Irish traitors" and so on.

This is not to disregard that power or to downgrade it either. The Union flag, the poppy, the Easter lily, the fainne for Irish speakers, the cap badge, the service medals... there is no shortage of glittering and flapping bric-a-brac in our traditions and they have their peculiar emotional pull and power, and represent valid personal, social and national bonds.

But we all also know that where those symbols are simply territorial - the equivalent of cats spraying the hedges as signs of ownership - that's when they become degraded and debased and begin to be treated with disrespect by those who parade them rather than those who object to them in that context.

Burns' thinking that he could envisage the removal of the Irish national flag and the Irish national anthem from GAA fixtures if it would make the association and its aims less problematic to Protestants or unionists is a challenging thought. Some will think that such an approach is close to appeasement - where would giving unionists a veto over how the GAA expresses its national vision stop?

But, of course, that isn't the point. It's not about a veto, or a watering down of allegiance. But it is about prioritising the declared spirit of the GAA, the spirit of the tricolour itself, the ambition for an Ireland, in its own terms, which cherishes all people of the nation equally.

It cannot be tolerated that we maintain a political or cultural viewpoint which insists that this island is inhabited by strangers. We are the same. Demonising or excluding or banning or barring or even just embarrassing others cannot really be part of any shared future. In order to entertain that thought, someone has to articulate it, put it out there, and Burns has done this bravely. I am reminded of McGuinness and Robinson at the house of murdered PSNI officer Stephen Carroll. And of Robinson at the wake of Michaela McAreavey and at the funeral of Ronan Kerr. Serious presences indeed, ground-breaking, courageous and, as we all knew, the right ones.

Jarlath Burns' views, of course, are a call which requires response from the unionist community. His engagement earlier in the year with the new Orange Museum is a case in point. Whatever can be done to break down stereotypes, increase engagement and real encounter between those who hold different views - compromise without being compromised - must be both described and actioned. How many of our friends, for example, are from "the other sort"? How comfortable are we in the churches, the homes, the schools, the butchers and grocers, of "the other sort"? How often have we made a point of crossing the divide in our own towns, in our own streets?

None of this is about tokenism, and it isn't about stupid point-scoring, historical or otherwise, which has characterised so much of the debate around Burns' views to date.

However, people who are a bit disappointed the Troubles ended the way they did, people who think there are still scores to settle, will never be able to move on.

The rest of us, though - we who pride ourselves on how advanced we are, how far above the unwashed we are, how civilised we are - will want to follow Jarlath Burns' example. We will not want to sit in our cultural bunkers, cuddling our own certainties, bequeathing to our children the same set of negative stereotypes and suspicions we ourselves inherited.

Put simply, it is about deliberate and conscious stepping over the boundaries. Going to those places where we are least comfortable, least "at home", least among the signs and emblems which make us feel cosy and "among our own".

I don't believe that Jarlath Burns is on his own, either. People from the two sides of our divide have found ways to be neighbourly, friendly, cherished and treasured across the divisions, without having conceded a single jot of their own values or beliefs. Jarlath Burns is simply making visible what we all know is one of the great treasures of our shared culture - those enviable individuals who managed, simply, to make themselves respected across the divide. We all know people who managed to achieve that greatest honour of all in our society.

And that's the medal we all now should seek to win.

Belfast Telegraph

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