Ballynafeigh Orange Lodge rolls out welcome mat for Bredagh GAA club
Handshakes and smiles in latest outreach gesture across the divide
An Orange lodge in south Belfast has welcomed a GAA club through its hall's doors for the first time.
Members and players from Bredagh GAC embarked on a guided tour of Ballynafeigh Orange hall on the Ormeau Road, which opened more than 130 years ago.
In return, the lodge was invited to a Gaelic football event held at the nearby Cherryvale playing fields, hosted by Bredagh, where around 150 young GAA players were taking part.
Twenty years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the bridge-building visit has been hailed as significant by politicians, members of the Orange Order and the GAA.
Ballynafeigh was once strongly unionist, but is now mainly nationalist, although it has one of the most diverse communities in Northern Ireland.
The visit to the Orange hall was organised through close co-operation between Bredagh's chairman Malcolm MacFarlane and Stephen Biggerstaff, chairman of Ballynafeigh Cultural and Heritage Society (BCHS).
It is believed to be the first visit by a GAA club to an Orange hall in Belfast.
Mr Biggerstaff and Mr McFarlane met at workshops organised by Clanmil Housing. The housing group was devising a residents' charter for a new shared development in the area when the conversation began over a potential visit.
Guests were welcomed with handshakes and smiles as Mr Biggerstaff and Noel Liggett, the district master of No.10 LOL, greeted Mr McFarlane and other club members.
Mr Liggett said that he wanted his lodge and Bredagh GAC to be "good neighbours".
"The GAA club is a very important part of the Ormeau Road community and this is part of an ongoing process that we have been doing for 10 years," he said.
"The District Lodge were very supportive when I put this to them because they recognise that the Ormeau Road has underwent so many demographical changes."
It is not the first example of Orange outreach in recent weeks.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made history last month by becoming the first Irish Premier to accept an invitation to the Order's headquarters in east Belfast.
And poles and straps for banners were also lent by a lodge in north Belfast in June for a march to commemorate 100 years of women winning the right to vote.
"We have two options," added Mr Liggett.
"We can either pull the shutters down and be in people's faces all the time, which is not going to serve us long-term, or we can go out and be part of the wider community, even through small gestures."
Mr MacFarlane said the visit had been part of an ongoing process.
"Stephen Biggerstaff and I have been discussing this (event) for the best part of a year," he explained.
"Both of us understand that we're custodians of this community for the younger generations coming through and it's all about the children.
"Ballynafeigh Orange hall is a well-known landmark in the area but isn't a place that GAA members would normally visit. Offering tours of the building seemed like a really good idea.
"I think the community on both sides will welcome this. Reciprocation is already on the way with some of the members coming to watch the games at Cherryvale Park."
Shortly after the visit, members of BCHS joined members of GAA team at the Gaelic football tournament.
Mr Biggerstaff said it was great to be part of the day.
"As well as some competitive matches, we hope they've enjoyed the tours and understand a little more about the history and heritage of the Loyal Institutions and what they are about," he said.
South Belfast DUP MLA Chistopher Stalford said it was a "significant" event.
"I think this signifies that people on the Ormeau Road always lived peaceably alongside each other," he said.
"Even though we have a myriad of different cultures existing on this road, we are good neighbours and good friends and I think it's entirely appropriate that this event should be taking place.
"It shows the strength of the leadership of Ballynafeigh District No 10 that they have facilitated this event." Mr Stalford attended the Ulster GAA football final between Donegal and Fermanagh in Clones last week with his party leader Arlene Foster.
Mr Stalford added: "I think what people want in society in general is that we can live in a more normalised situation, where culture isn't a dividing line between people but it's actually something that can be celebrated across the traditional divide in Northern Ireland."
Green Party MLA Clare Bailey also attended the visit and said it was "really powerful".
Ruairi Sheridan plays for the Bredagh GAC senior team and said he had no hesitation about visiting the hall.
"Only good things can come from this," he said. "The first step is always the hardest step and I'm sure after this, things will be a lot easier to organise. All my team-mates were happy with me coming here, which people might be surprised about - but there were no issues."