Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Why Saturday's neighbourliness between Orange Order and GAA members holds out hope for Northern Ireland

There may be stalemate at Stormont, but bridges are being built between communities here, writes Gail Walker

First, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited the Orange Order's HQ. Then, DUP leader Arlene Foster pitched up at a GAA match in Clones. And at the weekend more signs of a community-driven, if not particularly political, thaw.

The visits which took place last Saturday between members of the Orange Order and Bredagh GAC showed that progress - regardless of what is happening up on the hill - is not only possible but is taking place. Right here, right now.

And it was spontaneous, coming about, it seems, due to a mixture of curiosity and acquaintance. Two men at the heart of each institution came up with the idea - Malcolm McFarlane, the chair of Bredagh GAC, and Stephen Biggerstaff, the chair of the Ballynafeigh Cultural and Heritage Society.

The guests at Ballynafeigh Orange Hall were shown round the premises and heard a talk about the origins and history of the Orange Order.

As is only hospitable, Bredagh GAC then invited members of the society to the Feile Peile na nOg GAA tournament - which features teams from Scotland and Dublin - at Cherryvale playing fields.

Critics may pooh-pooh all this as "gesture politics", but such occasions, while sadly still as rare as hens' teeth, are not to be sniffed at or easily ignored. The truth is that it is what happens on the ground - the streets of our cities and the townlands of our countryside - that really counts.

Such an exchange as took place on Saturday would have been inconceivable 20 years ago, and probably even a decade ago. But there is a real pattern emerging. It is indeed possible to cross the road.

Let us not forget exactly where we are talking about. The Ormeau Road was the scene of some of the most shocking acts of civil violence during the Troubles; it was an area scarred by sectarian hatreds where two communities carved up territories and were dominated by fear of "the other". It was a place where taking a wrong turn at a street corner could find you a long way from home indeed.

We would be foolish to forget that only a few years ago this area of south Belfast saw an annual rise of tensions during the marching season when headlines were dominated by parades, protests and provocations by one side or the other. Each year the world's Press would hang around the official no-man's-land of the Ormeau Bridge and speculate about just how bad it was going to be that Twelfth - and then go and find a "community activist" who was struggling "to keep the situation under control".

But on Saturday past? A cup of tea in one hand and a bun in the other.

You might smile, but the very real cultural exchanges we have developed among ourselves - small, common social rituals - allow for a wary civility which is already a huge advance on surly hostility and is a pathway to mutual acceptance. They give us the means to recognise the other's point of view even if we don't agree with it.

Tea and buns make good neighbours, to paraphrase Robert Frost. Between them, they disperse caricature and stereotype.

"I think maybe people came into the hall this morning and they're leaving with a different attitude towards our culture," said Mr Biggerstaff of the Ballynafeigh Cultural and Heritage Society. "You know it's a very small area, Ballynafeigh - people live together. So hopefully our neighbours will have seen a different side to our culture and hopefully everyone learns from things. Everyone has to move forward and this is the only way people can move forward by doing things like this and talking."

He added: "We have two options. 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."

Government departments can blether on about education towards mutual understanding, but sometimes a return to gentle courtesies can achieve just as much. At the end of the day, we just have to get on with our neighbours.

Especially when, basically, they're not THAT different to us ...

And that's the rub, because as uncomfortable, if not downright unpalatable, as it may be for some, there is much that unites the GAA and the Orange Order. They are both by nature grassroots, traditionalist and conservative. They exist to cherish and promote the narrative of their "people".

The key is that they are cultural organisations - both insist that there is something outside of personal prosperity and social class and educational attainment and postcode and family background or any other conventional marker of social status which forms a common bond of allegiance and identity and belonging and purpose.

The disagreement is certainly over details; but not over the importance of ethos, solidarity, temperament, community, values ...

And as much as middle-class liberals may regret it, the GAA and Orange Order are bedrocks of life here. People don't necessarily go to GAA clubs and Orange Halls for overt political reasons, but because it was - and is - part of the warp and weft of daily life: there are family ties going back generations; a brother's wedding reception or a parent's funeral tea was held in the local hall; they met their wife or husband at a dance there; most importantly, they enjoy the companionship and a bit of crack (or craic).

This isn't to downplay the political dimensions of either organisation, but it would be a lie to portray members of either one with the broad brush of stereotype - the Orange as red-faced anti-Catholic zealots, the GAA as hard-faced diehard republicans.

First and foremost, they are local people with all the peculiar and wonderful virtues and vices belonging to us: a tendency to cling to the past, a grim unyielding nature (especially when an individual suspects they are under attack), a deep awareness of past wrongs suffered (past wrongs inflicted not so much); but also a population capable of kindness, civility, neighbourliness.

"This is simply about two different cultures and groups on the Ormeau Road getting to understand each other's cultures. At the end of the day, we are only custodians for the next generation of children coming through", said Malcolm McFarlane, chair of Bredagh GAC. "It's important we do the right thing. If we can help each other understand each other and improve where we live, it can't be a bad thing."

It's important we do the right thing.

It may not have the legal comprehensiveness of constitutional agreements, or peace treaties, but doing the right thing by our neighbours could yet be the foundation of true, lasting peace.

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph