Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: Why GAA should stay out of the debate about a united Ireland

A border poll would be contentious and polarising. Why would two self-declared moderates such as Joe Brolly and Jarlath Burns encourage the association to participate in such folly, asks Tom Kelly

Jarlath Burns Armagh 1994...Armagh 1994
Jarlath Burns Armagh 1994...Armagh 1994

All my life, I have supported the GAA; in my old school, the Abbey, the University of Ulster and, of course, my local club, St John Bosco GAC. In the latter, I was a club administrator, chairman and once even Clubman of the Year.

I also participated regularly in the Scor and attended cultural and Irish Language events sponsored by the association. Down and Bosco flags remain folded away in a chest of drawers in the ever-optimistic hope that the glory days will return.

I am of a generation that was lifted over the paying turnstiles by my father in full view of GAA officials at the "Marshes" in Newry, Casement Park, St Tiaranch's in Clones and, of course, at the Field of Dreams: Croke Park. Back then, people were packed into the stadia like sardines, but we didn't mind.

As I pen this article, I notice two little cards in my memory box: my Down Supporters' Association card, which lists the county's last achievement as the National League in 1983; and my membership card of Cairde an Duin - it was the third card issued. Since 1994, I have regularly donated to the promotion of Gaelic games, even though Down's silverware has been somewhat scarce.

Of course, none of this puts me in the same league as "GAA powerhouse" football pundit and Derry legend, Joe Brolly, or Silverbridge mainstay, former Armagh captain and sports commentator Jarlath Burns.

Neither of these men were shrinking violets on the pitch - although these days they are much better known for their utterances in a studio.

In their day, as footballers, they were among the most talented in Ulster.

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Jarlath Burns is now headmaster of a very successful high school in Bessbrook and has been transformative and innovative in his approach to education. In the field of education, he is widely admired and respected.

He is a polished communicator and, in an interview with veteran broadcaster Eamonn Mallie is on record as saying that his mother and the GAA were largely responsible for him not getting involved in the IRA. Burns has declared an interest in becoming president of the GAA - one of the most prestigious posts in the third sector on the island of Ireland.

Joe Brolly is a force of nature. He isn't one to hide his light under a bushel. A successful barrister and sports commentator, Brolly is articulate, funny and engaging.

His commentary on sports matters can be divisive, but if his Twitter feed is anything to go by he seems to thrive on it. In fact, his raison d'etre seems to be just that: getting a reaction.

Brolly is also capable of unimaginable generosity. Like my own brother-in-law, he was a live kidney donor. He also helped a homeless guy get re-established. But his forays into the political arena seem less sure-footed - although he said in a local media interview that he had never voted for Sinn Fein, or the SDLP, and that if he was a nationalist at all, he was a very moderate one.

Recently both of these footballing legends made remarks that were broadly similar in tone about the role they felt that the GAA, as an organisation, should take in relation to any potential border poll. Both felt the association should not be neutral on the matter - in fact, Brolly went further and suggested that there was an imperative on the association to be proactive.

This is politically explosive territory for the GAA, its members and its outreach - not just to unionists. It is also the kind of fodder that some unionists love to feed on to make an equivocation between the GAA and the Orange Order. There is no such equivocation.

While both the Orange Order and the GAA have been involved in outreach programmes in order to achieve a better understanding of each organisation, there has to be more caution in the presentation of such outreach. The GAA is not an exclusive organisation. Its ranks are as likely to include an Aazim and a Wojcierch as a Saoirse or Fiachra.

Both commentators appear to be drawing on an interpretation in the GAA Guide - Basic Aim Rule 1.2, which states that: "The Association is a national organisation, which has as its basic aims the strengthening of the national identity in a 32-county Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic games and pastimes."

It's a stretch of the imagination to draw from this that the GAA as a body should agitate for and campaign in any such border poll.

The association currently - and successfully - achieves the objectives of this rule not only in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, but also in Great Britain, where there is a thriving and growing club network.

Also, Rule 1.2 needs to be read in its whole context, not just one half. The rule is clear: the association is tasked with achieving its objectives on national identity through the "preservation and promotion of Gaelic games and pastimes". Nowhere does it say its role is to campaign in referenda.

In fact, the GAA has assiduously remained neutral in all the recent referenda in the Republic of Ireland. And it should withstand any political pressure to campaign in a border poll.

The motivation behind the recent comments of both Brolly and Burns on the role of the GAA in a border poll are unclear. Both are considerate and sincere. And, of course, individual members of the GAA are free to take any personal position on the issue of a border poll.

But Brolly recognises the toxicity of polarisation created by the DUP within Northern Ireland on what should be a non-contentious issue; while Burns has previously said that, if it helped reconciliation with unionists, he would happily forgo the presence of the tricolour and national anthem from Gaelic games in the north.

A border poll is contentious and any debate around it would be polarising. It's hard to fathom why two self-declared moderates would encourage the GAA to participate in such folly.

The GAA - like many national organisations, such as the credit union movement - successfully spans the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland; they rely heavily on the input of tens of thousands of volunteers from all walks of life, every political opinion and none, and they succeed because they abide by the maxim, "leave your politics at the door".

Unionists have been quick to jump on the comments of both Brolly and Burns as examples of the political nature and motivation of the GAA.

They want to demonise what is essentially a sporting and cultural organisation, or, at the very least, create the equivocation of the GAA with the Orange Order. This simply cannot be allowed.

There is a real challenge ahead for the association in redefining what is modern "Irish identity" in a more pluralist and diverse Ireland and how you strengthen it.

An agreed new Ireland may continue to have Stormont and the Dail. And an agreed new Ireland and the identity of those in it will almost certainly be multicultural.

Two gifted and pluralist commentators should realise that calling for something that is so obviously toxic doesn't contribute to, or help, the reunification of hearts and minds, let alone territory.

The real imperative for people like Brolly and Burns is not to give up on the people they share this divided space with for the sake of a headline.

Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator

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