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Comment: Paeder Heffron deserves the GAA's support

New ball game: Peadar Heffron in action for the PSNI Gaelic side in 2006
New ball game: Peadar Heffron in action for the PSNI Gaelic side in 2006
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Sitting in the main stand of Breffni Park on the first Saturday of April 2011, hours before the crowds arrived for a National Football League game between Cavan and Louth, my phone buzzed.

The "Where are you?" was out of my now wife's mouth before I had a chance to say hello. I wasn't at home and that's all that mattered.

Because home then was at Highfield Close in Omagh, just around the corner from Healy Park. Thirty yards from the front door of our apartment, across the Glencam Road, was where Ronan Kerr, a 25-year-old PSNI recruit, parked his car.

Sometime in the night, someone came along and planted a bomb under that car. And when Kerr went to go to Enniskillen for work, that bomb exploded and killed him.

Nobody knows how they might react in that situation. Natural vanity leads us to believe we would spring into action. But until you are among the smoke and flames, you would have no idea. I count myself lucky that I wasn't at home that day.

For the dissident republicans, this was a sick result, designed to divide people.

Memories from that heinous act stay in the mind. The dignity of his mother, Nuala. The disgusted reaction from all corners of society. The fact that the Omagh half-marathon, with a route that travelled along the Glencam Road, was staged just hours earlier.

In the weeks after and with police officers on house calls conducting enquiries, the revelations were chilling. We were asked if we had noticed lampposts going on and off in the middle of the night. The bombers had found a way to tamper with the lights in order to carry out their deeds and had a couple of dry runs.

And the funeral, with members of Ronan's GAA club, Beragh Red Knights of Tyrone, handling the arrangements alongside the PSNI, indeed, passing the coffin from one to the other.

The image of representatives of Tyrone GAA, with Mickey Harte, captain Brian Dooher and chairman Ciaran McLaughlin shouldering the coffin with Kerr's PSNI hat on top, was particularly powerful. It sent out a message.

Because society struggles when it comes out of a deep, embedded conflict. Sometimes, people slip and do the wrong thing. It happened to Peadar Heffron, who detailed how he felt the GAA community of his club, Creggan Kickhams, shunned him after he informed them he was to join the first tranche of Catholic recruits into the reformed PSNI.

It was too soon for some.

On November 4, 2001, the RUC was reformed as the PSNI. Thirteen days later, the GAA formed a Special Congress to debate, vote on and ultimately abolish Rule 21 of the Association, which was a ban on taking part in GAA activities for members of crown forces.

Heffron was one of the first recruits, filled with good intentions.

And this is all hindsight now, but the GAA removed a contentious rule and found themselves completely ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. There was no concrete policy around it other than to admit a section of society that was previously banned.

On a sunny day in the summer of 2013, I was at The Dub watching the Gardai play a PSNI select side in a Gaelic football match as part of the World Police and Fire Games.

I caught sight of a man in a wheelchair. It was Peadar Heffron. He had suffered horrendous, dreadful injuries through a similar device to that which killed Ronan Kerr.

I went over, introduced myself and asked if at some point he might do an interview. He was holding a hurl in his hand, tapping it off the grass and there was no disguising a deep anguish that was right there on the surface as he politely turned me down. Feeling intrusive, I gave him my regards and left.

When Heffron told his team-mates he was joining the police, he might have hoped for people to have made a similar journey in their minds.

But you cannot account for others, the values they hold, the experiences they had. Some may have been mistreated by the RUC. Some Creggan members have intimated that not everybody in the club wanted him banished. Everyone carries their own perceptions and guilts.

In 2017, it would be nice to think that if a club member made the same announcement as Peadar Heffron, it would raise no eyebrows. This peace process is young, and it has many more miles to travel.

Can the GAA do more? As they said in their statement on Monday, they recently hosted an International Police Gaelic football tournament in Belfast. They carry full-page ads in the matchday programme of the All-Ireland final.

In this newspaper, Dr Maurice Hayes - the first Catholic Ombudsman in Northern Ireland - said: "The GAA can only do a certain amount.

"People can change rules, (but) changing attitudes takes a lot longer. And a lot depends on what happens at local level."

Policing this part of the world is always an inexact science. But if Peadar Heffron and the superbly-written piece by Joe Brolly have opened up an uncomfortable conversation, then that's fine. Successful societies have these and emerge the better for them.

Heffron has opened up several sores. In time, the GAA should make a gesture towards him and to others who took risks and became frontiersmen.

Belfast Telegraph


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