Plans are under way to form a new GAA club in east Belfast. Apparently, it would be the first and the people promoting the club have invited local Irish language activist Linda Ervine to become its president.
According to a report in Gaelic Life, which broke the news, she has accepted.
They carried the story under the headline ‘Linda Ervine is first president of east Belfast GAA club’ and informed readers that Linda is a Presbyterian.
Now, if the club gets off the ground and if this comes to pass, she wouldn’t be the first Protestant to hold office in the GAA.
Down through the years a number of Protestants have held office in that organisation, but they have been Protestant Irish nationalists.
Douglas Hyde, a co-founder of the Gaelic League in 1893 and later President of the Irish Free State, was the son of a Church of Ireland minister.
More recently Jack Boothman, a vet from Co Wicklow, was the first Protestant to become president of the GAA, an office he held from 1994 to 1997.
A staunch Irish nationalist and republican, he told the Sunday Business Post in 1994: “I don’t accept the claims of unionists that they are British.”
Both men were Protestants, but they were Protestant Irish nationalists and that brings us to the heart of a very interesting question about the new GAA club — a question that is not about religion, but rather about politics.
The current version of the GAA’s official guide was approved in 2016 and it restates as its basic aim: “The GAA is a national organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the national identity in a 32-county Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic games.”
The GAA games are the method, but a “32-county Ireland” is the mission, and not just a “32-county Ireland”, but a “32-county Gaelic Ireland”.
As it states in the introduction, the GAA is “a means of consolidating our Irish identity. The games are more than games — they have a national significance”.
The introduction also states: “Since she has not control over all the national territory, Ireland’s claim to nationhood is impaired.”
That makes it absolutely clear that the aim of the GAA is a 32-county independent Ireland, with all the “national territory”, and Northern Ireland is simply an “impairment” of that vision.
Section 1:8 of the official guide is headed “National flag and anthem”, and that means the Irish tricolour and A Soldier’s Song.
In case anyone is in doubt, the official guide even reprints a letter sent by Archbishop Croke to the founding meeting of the GAA in 1884 in which he describes the Union Jack as “England’s bloody red”.
A few years ago a few people in the GAA made some tentative suggestions about change but these were ignored, and GAA pundit Joe Brolly even went on to remind us that the premier Gaelic football trophy, the Sam Maguire Cup, “was named after a member of a team of IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood) assassins in London”.
The tentative suggestions were soon terminated.
But what would all that have to do with Linda Ervine, a professed unionist, becoming president of a GAA club?
Well, section 2:1b of the official guide covers membership and states: “Membership of the association shall be granted only by a club to persons who subscribe to and undertake to further the aims and objectives of the Gaelic Athletic Association, as stated in the official guide.”
All members must “subscribe to and undertake to further” the aims and objectives.
There is no room for exemptions and neither is there much room for mental equivocation.
So, where does that leave the east Belfast club and their prospective president?
Last year Linda Ervine was advocating “a federation of islands... an all-Ireland within a close-knit British Isles”, but even that is not the GAA’s vision.
GAA club members have to “subscribe to and undertake to further” the Irish nationalist vision of a 32-county independent republic and thereby sever Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. How can a unionist — of whatever hue — sign up to that?