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12 October 2015

People cannot be forced to enjoy a different culture

Jarlath Burns

I'm unlikely ever to attend a GAA match. Most team games leave me cold, though, like Martin McGuinness, I'm fond of cricket.

There are, I'm sure, some unionists who might enjoy Gaelic games but wouldn't go near any of them because they would feel uncomfortable with the ethos of the GAA, as expressed in its flags, its music and, above all, the names proudly borne by many of its clubs.

The role of the GAA in binding local communities together has been very positive in southern Ireland.

It helped to bind the wounds after the civil war and gave a sense of pride at a time when poverty and emigration meant there wasn't much to be cheerful about.

Its role in Northern Ireland has been much more divisive. When it came to reforming the rules, to get rid of the ban on foreign games, it was the Northern Irish who were most resistant.

Those dominating the latest round of arguments about the GAA are: Jarlath Burns, a Bessbrook headmaster and a former captain of the Armagh Gaelic football team; Joe Brolly, who played for the Derry GAA team when it won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship and has been called "the most lippy and articulate pundit on Irish television"; and Tom Elliott, UUP MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and member of the Orange, the Black and the Apprentice Boys.

Burns has been on what he calls his "own journey", trying to understand the culture of his Protestant neighbours by, for instance, taking pupils to see the Museum of Orange Heritage at Schomberg House.

In July he denounced arson attacks on Orange lodges as "akin to something done by the Nazis or Ku Klux Klan," and pointed out to republicans that the proclamation of the Irish Republic instructed them to "cherish all the children of the nation equally".

Burns's journey is continuing at such a pace that he has described the presence of the tricolour and the playing of the Irish national anthem at GAA games as "divisive" and said that: "If I thought for a moment that Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott would become our greatest fan, I would get rid of them, surely."

Brolly doesn't seem to be on any kind of a journey, save that of continuing to march down the road he's happy with.

A man of impeccable republican credentials (his father was, and his mother is, a Sinn Fein politician), as far as he's concerned, his club did its bit by playing against the PSNI in 2006.

"No appeasement", he opined, "would satisfy the Tom Elliotts of this world."

I know Tom Elliott, so I wasn't surprised when he responded warmly to Jarlath Burns' "progressive attitude", and suggested Brolly might like to participate in discussions about how help make the GAA "a little more acceptable to the wider community".

GAA enthusiasts can be very annoying when they lecture critics about how non-sectarian they are, bragging that they have clubs named after Presbyterian members of the United Irishmen, and that the Sam Maguire trophy is named after a member of the Church of Ireland?

Well, yes, but it's politics, not religion, that bugs unionists about the GAA. The United Irishmen were revolutionaries, and Maguire was in the IRB and a suspected assassin in 1922 of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson.

Jarlath Burns will know that Armagh clubs are named after a variety of Irish revolutionaries, including Robert Emmet, who led a revolution in 1903, O'Donovan Rossa, the dynamiter, Patrick Pearse, and, most offensive of all, Sean South, who was killed in an attack on an RUC station.

Joe Brolly will know there's a Derry club named after Kevin Lynch, an INLA hunger-striker.

GAA clubs are unlikely to get rid of names that have been carried by their players for generations. And unionists should not be called bigots for staying away from them.

You can't and shouldn't try to force people to enjoy each other's cultures.

It would be good if decent people like Jarlath Burns and Tom Elliott came to trust one another enough to invite each other respectively to a Fermanagh parade and an Armagh GAA match in a club with an inoffensive name.

Just don't insist that they enjoy themselves.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards