Belfast Telegraph

Ex-GAA president Sean Kelly 'extremely disappointed' at news PSNI team expected to fold

Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly, a former GAA president (Julien Behal/PA)
Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly, a former GAA president (Julien Behal/PA)

A former GAA president has said the news that the PSNI's GAA team is to fold as a result of a steady decline in new players since the end of 50/50 recruitment is "extremely disappointing".

Sean Kelly, who was president of the GAA from 2003 to 2006 and gave the club his backing, made the comments following reports the PSNI GAC could fold within the next year after not being able to compete over the past six years due to falling numbers.

It's lead to the cancellation of planned games because they couldn't organise a full team, according to the Irish News.

Just two games were played during the 2019 season after the end of 50/50 recruitment in 2011 has seen a decline in Catholic recruits.

The club made history after Rule 21, which prohibited security force members from joining the GAA, was lifted in November 2001 when the changeover from RUC to PSNI was made.

Sean Kelly, who is now a Fine Gael MEP, said the "very existence" of the club is of "significant political importance".

"Recent reports that PSNI GAC could be forced to finish up due to declining participation levels are extremely disappointing," he said.

"I was pleased as GAA President to help in every way possible to set up and get the club off the ground. Later, as an MEP, I was pleased to host the PSNI GAC in Brussels.

"A lot of hard work and effort went into setting up this fantastic club by some great people, including Ulster GAA, and it would be a shame to see it discontinued.

"The very existence of this club is of significant political importance. Their contribution to peace, through sport, in Northern Ireland has been enormous. I hope this rallying cry will focus enough attention and support to ensure its survival and prosperity."

Peadar Heffron joined the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2002
Peadar Heffron joined the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2002

A serving officer who has been a long-standing member of the PSNI GAC told the Irish News the club provided a "safe haven and home to many gaels unable to continue playing with their own clubs for various reasons, not least security".

"Like any GAA club, it has given its members lifelong friendships and memories," he said.

The officer, who cannot be identified for security reasons, said at its peak the football team had 35 players - "most of whom had previously played at a reasonable club level".

He said the attempted murder of Catholic officer Peadar Heffron in January 2010, who was the then-captain of the team, and the murder of Ronan Kerr, who was from a GAA family, the next year, hit the team hard.

It led them to consider closing PSNI GAC, which fields both football and hurling teams, due to fears for players lives.

"At that time, each member of the club had to decide whether they wished to continue their association, identifying themselves as Irish Catholic police officers," he said.

"Defiantly, when the time came for the next football training a few months later we had a massive turn out, not matched before or since.

"We have played twice on the hallowed turf of Croke Park and competed against our colleagues An Garda Síochána, London Metropolitan and NYPD every two years in an international police tournament whilst also playing local club teams in counties Antrim and Down.

"Devastatingly, there has been a slow decline in the club's fortunes in recent years.

"Since the end of 50/50 recruitment the football team has had little to no new blood. Our most recent signings have been open minded colleagues from non-GAA backgrounds willing to give the sport a go.

"They have been brilliant for us and it must be said, very talented footballers.

"With no police officers coming from a GAA background or willing to try the sport, our team has grown old. The average age of the team is now mid to late thirties with a core of players that have been together for the last decade.

"We struggle to get games at the best of times as clubs have reservations about playing us and also have their own season fixtures to contend with.

"This is the first year in memory that we have had to cancel organised games because we cannot field a team, let alone a squad."

The officer also criticised what he described as "aggressive and rude" treatment by civilian staff when attending training.

"I have literally watched a number of them approach my car smiling and friendly, only to become rude and obnoxious, treating me with suspicion as they set eyes on my GAA gear [PSNI GAA gear] as I attend for training.

"However ... you will see a number of civilian soccer teams using the facilities whilst wearing their Glasgow Rangers soccer jerseys without issue."

Around 32% of PSNI officers are currently from the Catholic community, while Catholics make up around 50% of the population of Northern Ireland.

In August, Chief Constable Simon Byrne said the PSNI was "not yet back at the point" where 50-50 recruitment of Protestant and Catholics was needed.

The Chief Constable said he wanted to "convince the people that hold me to account that we have tried every means possible to encourage people from both the Catholic community and also the working-class loyalist community, who I think need a stronger voice in policing".

The PSNI officer who did not wish to be named said: "It is no exaggeration to say that at least 90 per cent of all new recruits placed in my district since the end of 50/50 are from a Protestant and/or unionist background.

"With the lack of Catholic recruits presently, the number of gaels joining the PSNI is non-existent".

He said despite requests and other sports receiving financial support, players due to travel to New York this year for the Police Games have funded the trip themselves to the tune of £1,100 each, which is subsidised by a small amount of sponsorship from GAA supporting businesses.

"All of these ongoing issues will bring an end to the PSNI GAA club," the officer said.

A police spokesman said: "PSNI officers are encouraged to join the GAA club, as well as other sports clubs, within the service. The GAA club has seen an increase in support in recent years and continues to play matches against other blue light services and organisations."

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