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Comment: Antrim GAA needs stability to flourish like Belfast boxing

By Declan Bogue

What a night it was in the SSE Arena for Belfast sport last Saturday night.

Or, more specifically, for the brand of Belfast boxing. The Conlan brothers Michael and Jamie, Paddy Barnes and most especially Carl Frampton have done more to unite the people of this corner of the world than most.

They are a Belfast feel-good story at a time when it's desperately needed. Quite apart from the appalling political inertia we have at this time, it has largely gone unnoticed that the urge to get on with building Casement Park has ended up as collateral damage in the IRFU's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stage the 2023 Rugby World Cup in Ireland.

In fact, the crumbling state of Casement serves as a neat metaphor for the overall health of Gaelic games in the city over the past decade.

Sure, there are some great clubs who are achieving plenty. And then you have the likes of Michael Davitts, who we documented back in April with their outstanding outreach work in the community in bringing young Syrian refugee Muhammad Al Haj Kadour into the heart of their club and community.

But the fact remains that Belfast GAA should be a major player, not some afterthought.

To that end, the Antrim county board have this year been in delicate negotiations for additional funding from the GAA at central level.

Just before Christmas, they are expected to start taking delivery of a funding programme worth £1.5m over five years.

It's badly needed. Just prior to the Christy Ring Cup final this year, St John's hurler and county captain Simon McCrory told this reporter that progress in his job as games promotion manager among schools was going "slowly" and added: "Especially in north Belfast, it is a really untouched area. There is huge areas like Ardoyne, New Lodge, Glengormley that clubs are doing great work in, but more coaching and support is needed to really make the game grow."

McCrory is one of just two games promotion officers for the entire city. Even if he did ignite a fire in a child, they found that clubs aren't sufficiently staffed to take a flood of children into under-age training anyway.

The new money will be used to create roughly eight new coaching positions across Belfast with an urban development manager to measure the progress.

To put it into context, in 2016 Antrim received €150,000 in games development grants. Dublin's figure was 10 times that.

This tranche of funding must only be the start of a process.

The Dublin county board made good use of their money. Perhaps the greatest trick they ever pulled off in the last 20 years was to show the middle-classes that sport for southsiders wasn't all sailing jackets, binds and scrums.

Now you have Cuala as All-Ireland hurling champions. It's a phenomenal establishment of Gaelic tradition in previously barren land.

There were also many doubters when St Brigid's sprung out a few interested Gaels around the St Bride's area of south Belfast, but now they are a thriving Antrim club. They aren't quite as prominent as previous years but nonetheless populated by brilliant minds and thinkers which ensures they will always be a club of progress.

What Antrim require now more than anything is a period of stability.

At the upcoming county convention, county board chairman Collie Donnelly will be challenged for his position by Jim McLean of Dunloy. Nobody would doubt the honourable intentions of anyone seeking the highest office, and the desire to hold such roles ensures the health of their democracy, but Donnelly has been at the heart of an overhaul in the county.

One of the things they have achieved is that Donnelly has maximised his experience in the corporate sector, such as the 'Saffron Business Forum' which he set up with 90 members contributing £1,000 per annum.

A stated aim of the 'Saffron Vision' movement was to tap into the reserves of corporate potential in Belfast. They have also had three business breakfasts and a business lunch on May 19.

Other gritty tasks were completed behind the scenes, such as repairing relations with the Casement Social Club. They have chipped away at the historic debt of the county board, most especially relating to monies owed to Croke Park, but also the Dunsilly project that they opened last winter.

The local Championships have been sponsored for the first time. They hosted All-Ireland champions Tipperary on a weekend that paid tribute to the peace-maker Fr Alec Reid and the graft with the Belfast Urban Plan is now bearing fruit.

While Donnelly has been largely confined to the background, another young hungry administrator has been public relations officer Sean Kelly, whose enthusiasm for the role is evident in the social media output he has pioneered for the last campaign.

They have capable people, but they require stability - especially with this funding coming down the tracks.

What Antrim don't need right now is upheaval. They have tried that. Many, many times.

And they can see where it got them.

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