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Irish nationalism core to GAA ethos, so why is it trying to downplay fact?

By Nelson McCausland

Published 17/12/2015

Ryan Feeney
Ryan Feeney

Ryan Feeney, the public relations officer for the GAA's Ulster Council, is about to move to a new post with Queen's University, and last week he was interviewed in this newspaper.

During the interview he spoke about the recent controversy when a member of the Bellaghy Wolfe Tone's club took part in a republican paramilitary funeral.

He was also asked about the Orange Order and the GAA and said: "I don't believe that the Orange Order and the GAA is the flipside of the one coin. They are two very different organisations. We are a sporting and cultural organisation; the Orange Order is a religious, political and community organisation. There is a clear differential there."

He is right in saying that there are differences between the Orange Order and the GAA, but the two organisations have more in common than he admits.

The Orange Order has a religious dimension in that it is committed to the Protestant faith, and it has a political dimension in that it supports the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It is also a community organisation and, in some communities, especially in rural areas, Orange halls are very important centres for community activity.

It also contributes to community cohesion within the Protestant and unionist community as members are drawn from different Protestant denominations and may well support different pro-Union parties.

However, Mr Feeney omitted the fact that the Orange Order is also a cultural organisation with its banners, its traditions, its music and the colour and pageantry of its parades.

Then, as regards the GAA, he said that it is "a sporting and cultural organisation". That is certainly true as it promotes the Irish language and Irish Gaelic culture as well as its sports.

But he omitted to say that it is also a community organisation and, in many Roman Catholic and nationalist communities, especially rural communities, the GAA club is an important centre for community activity.

He also omitted to say that it has a political dimension in that it supports a united Ireland. He acknowledged that the GAA is "an all-Ireland, Irish sporting organisation, it is about Irish identity and it does not apologise for that. And it does it in the context of the Good Friday Agreement".

Yes, that indicates support for the principle of consent, but it does not negate the fact that GAA is an Irish nationalist organisation.

Indeed, the flying of the Irish tricolour and the singing of the national anthem of the Irish Republic, as set out in the GAA constitution, are expressions of that political viewpoint.

The current version of that constitution, as approved on June 3, 2011, also states that: "GAA games are more than games - they have a national significance - and the promotion of native pastimes becomes a part of the full national ideal."

Its vision is the creation of a 32-county Gaelic Ireland, and GAA games are an assertion of Irish nationhood.

In the introduction to the constitution, it states: "Since she has not control over all the national territory, Ireland's claim to nationhood is impaired."

The very existence of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom is described by the GAA as an "impairment".

According to paragraph 2.1, members of the GAA "must subscribe to and undertake to further the aims and objects of the GAA". That does not exclude Protestants, but it does exclude unionists.

Paragraph 1.11 states that the GAA is "non party-political", but that does not mean that it is "non-political".

You can be a member of the GAA and a member of the SDLP or Sinn Fein or any of the myriad of smaller republican groups, but you can't be a unionist.

That Irish nationalist dimension to the GAA is one that the organisation seeks to downplay, but it is firmly embedded there in the constitution - a document with which Ryan Feeney will be very familiar.

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