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GAA's strong links with IFA and Ulster Rugby show it's keen to reach out

 

By John Campbell

It was inevitable, of course - the silent revulsion that followed the highlighting of Peadar Heffron's terrible injuries once again and the perceived code of omerta on the part of elements of the GAA that followed it.

Yet if one man's burning desire to play his part in bringing about a safer, more integrated society in the province ended in utter heartbreak, then perhaps he has unwittingly helped to focus a spotlight on what life really is like at the grassroots of sport - and on the immense strides that are continuing to be made to prove that, despite setbacks of the magnitude suffered by Peadar, the future is bright.

Who would have thought, indeed, that one of Ulster Council chief Michael Hasson's concerns just now is that IFA chairman David Martin might not be able to make it to his annual presidential awards presentation at the start of next month?

Or that former Armagh All-Ireland winner Diarmuid Marsden is much more concerned with how a team from Banbridge that is representative of the entire community will fare in the All-Britain schools' championships now that they have become the latest winners of the Cuchulainn Cup?

For Hasson, one word has always embodied the very essence of the GAA, and that is 'community'.

Little wonder, then, that he is at pains to emphasise the Ulster Council's current efforts to intensify its outreach strategy aimed at embracing those from other sectors of the population.

"I believe that the GAA is all about community. Everyone is welcome under our banner and we are continually striving to bring our sports and our values into every area of the province," says Hasson.

"In the process, we have been working with the PSNI and various agencies. The fact that the GAA, the IFA and the Ulster Branch IRFU have never been more in unison gives us great encouragement going forward.

"While I am particularly keen that David Martin from the IFA should be at my awards evening, there is the possibility that he will be in Russia for the World Cup draw, assuming Northern Ireland get through. If he is, then I will be delighted for him. After all, he can't be in two places at once."

And as Hasson continues to represent Ulster in the corridors of power, Marsden's ceaseless toil at grassroots level has seen the launch of several initiatives which have helped to merge 'us and them' in a sporting context.

In the process, his drive to provide a better quality of life for young people, in particular, from across the community is garnering plaudits from all sides.

"We are working in partnership with the PSNI and various statutory bodies to deliver programmes relative to issues such as mental health, drugs and alcohol abuse, and the response has been tremendous," states Marsden.

And he believes that the unified approach to such problems has been chiefly responsible for what he views as a significant breakthrough in the work that is currently being undertaken.

"We have just received funding under the Europe Peace Four project that will prove of immense benefit and will allow us to trigger more initiatives as we move forward," he adds.

It was Marsden who set the move in motion that culminated in Oisin McConville firing in the goal that proved crucial to Armagh's only All-Ireland final triumph to date in 2002.

And if Marsden's commitment to the GAA's robust cross-community strategy is resolute, McConville is actually among the pioneers of such ground-breaking endeavours.

"I well remember several years ago when David Humphreys was in his pomp with Ulster that I was invited to take part in place-kicking forums with him that spanned clubs and schools in different sports, and I was absolutely delighted to do so," says McConville.

"I found it a very refreshing, insightful experience and it gave me an added take on cross-community relations.

"I think the GAA, the IFA and the IRFU are combining to do great work and the fruits of their labours surely outweigh the grief and heartache caused by what happened to people like Peadar Heffron and Ronan Kerr."

And McConville believes that when feedback reaches clubs in particular about the success of such cross-community ventures, then society as a whole stands to benefit.

"There is no point in talking about things - people have got to go out and do things," he insists.

"It takes courage and foresight and maybe people will feel they are putting their heads above the parapet, but I can assure them they will feel the better for it."

Ulster Council PRO Michael Geoghegan believes that the GAA can actually become stronger because of its partnership with the IFA and Ulster Rugby.

"I think a lot of people are interested in all three sports and are keen to see them flourish. When the GAA ditched Rule 21 in 2002 and then took the decision to open Croke Park to international soccer and rugby in 2007, it made big statements," points out Geoghegan.

"That took courage and now it's up to the rest of us to show courage of a different form as we strive to create a better society.

"Just on Saturday week last the PSNI, Garda Siochana, the New York Police Department and the London Metropolitan Police took part in a Gaelic football tournament in Belfast.

"I ask you, who would have thought that would have been possible maybe at the start of the Noughties?

"It was the late former Ulster Council secretary Danny Murphy who dedicated himself to trying to make the province a better place in which to live for everyone and his ideals are being replicated by his successor Brian McAvoy, so let's all go forward in a positive mode towards a better tomorrow."

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