The GAA and Orange Order are Part of the Problem in “Northern Ireland” ?

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article (previously unpublished) in which I wrote about a Debate/Panel Discussion on the GAA and Orange Order.

The Subject: “The GAA and Orange Order” are part of the problem in Northern Ireland

The Venue: Strandtown Unionist Hall…Kick Off: 7.30pm

Referee: Danny Kinahan MLA (Ulster Unionist Party)

The Teams. Young Unionists versus Young SDLP (although it didnt actually pan out that way).

I think all of us who like Premiership Football, like to watch the FA Youth Cup. ANd those of us that like to go to watch a GAA Championship game at Clones or Casement like to arrive early to take in the “minor game” (the under 18s). And is there a bigger day that Schools Cup Rugby atRavenhill for the Protestant middle class and the GAA equivalant for middle class Catholics at Casement Park?

So I was invited by SDLP friends to East Belfast UUP at Strandtown  Hall. Initially it struck me as a very odd…even spurious debate. No nationalist would ever concede that
there is some kinda parity between the Orange Order and Gaelic Athletic Association.

Some within unionism might see the Orange Order as a very positive force …after all many are members. Others within UUP might see the Orange Order as a actually a relic of an older fashioned unionism (after all many  unionists are NOT members).

And many unionists are simply not interested (enough) in the GAA to have an opinion about it….and while many have a negative view…others at best have a grudging acceptance that it actually is a positive force for nationalists at least.

The Debate about the Orange Order is essentially one within unionism and tacking the GAA into the “motion” seemed almost irrelevant.

Well thats how the “Debate” was advertised to me. And on Facebook. And that was impression also of the SDLP participants and several young SDLP folks they had invited. The actual ground rules were seemingly “changed” by UUP hosts.

It was understood by SDLP that two UUP folks would propose the motion and two SDLP folks oppose it. As it turned out the motion was proposed by “R” a
young  UUP member and opposed by two young UUPs (“C” and “F” who is a member of the Orange Order) The other platform speaker was a major surprise…. a very senior GAA figure.

This relegated the two SDLP speakers to being audience members…at least initially. One “S” stated he believed this was an act of bad faith by the UUP hosts and both were allowed to join the platform party which probably made it over-crowded but I think both SDLP folks had difficulty asserting themselves from a (now) marginalised position.  Kudos here to Danny Kinahan MLA  for quick thinking.

At this point the format was more obviously a panel discussion rather than a debate and it also had the effect of outnumbering “R” the UUP proposer of the motion. He now had up to five folks in opposition to him.

My own  feeling thiswas a “screw up” rather than a “conspiracy”. Landing the major GAA figure who had effectively invited himself via Twitter was a major coup for the UUP organisers and certainly he added something…as it turned out quite a lot to the discussion.

“R” made a pretty good if somewhat clichéd speech about the Orange Order and GAA ……my knowledge of Orangeism is more historical than contemporary so I did not actually know if he was getting things right about the Orange Order of 2011. But as a GAA member I knew that a lot of what he said was to say the least outdated.

The prominent GAA man spoke in reply. It was not a speech. It was a tour de force. I discovered there was a lot about the GAA in 2011 that I didnt know. The extent of the outreach surprised me as much of it is out of public view. Im not totally convinced about some of it. Is it necessary to placate unionism by not broadcasting the Irish national anthem when broadcasting GAA matches?.

For myself and many Gaels, Id consider that a step too far. The playing of the anthem is a component part of being at a match and turning up the volume on the TV is as much part of the process as reaching for the “mute” button in the prelims to the FA Cup Final when the British National Anthem is played..

Besides its a back to the Future step.

Those of us around in the 1970s and 1980s can recall the stilted conversations between Harry Thompson (Or Larry McCoubrey or John Bennett) before it was deemed safe to join RTE for the start of a rugby match. Safe in the knowledge that Northern ears would not be polluted by having to listen to an Irish anthem.

The GAA man a thorough professional was in full command of the facts. And the combination of professionalism, knowledge and the charm offensive was very compelling. Indeed he delved into his own personal history which was at times moving. That the situation in Norn Iron would have been catastrophic if the GAA had not been a force in communities giving young Gaelic men and (increasingly) young women a focus.

“F” the young Orangeman again batted away some of party colleague “R”s misconceptions that were at best outdated. And distanced himself (as the GAA man had done) from the unofficial underbelly of their traditions. But again the frankness of admitting shortcomings in the past and the struggle to get the message accross of an organisation in positive change.

“C” actually a young unionist from the Dungiven area appeared to have no real problem with the local hurling team being named for an INLA Hunger striker. Her key point was that local community relations are excellent and the local Twelfth was policed by just eight police officers. As indeed it should be. Mutual respect between Orange marchers and Catholic

I think the SDLP folks were somewhat marginalised but got accross their key points about Orange marches and residents……..dialogue. Don’t march where you aren’t wanted.

“R” I think was outnumbered but had support (especially in relation to GAA) from the floor  including that from some of my fellow Sluggerites. If any are reading this, I wish to clearly state this is my own version of what happened last night. This report can only be enhanced by any contributions they make which I would welcome.

I think towards the end “R” lost it a bit. The GAA is about “foreign flags and foreign anthems”. Well of course it is.  All flags and anthems are foreign……. somewhere. But this is different. R says “The Republic has a territorial claim” on his country.

Thats what its all about. Perfectly acceptable for kinds of local ethnic groups, Chinese, American, Indian, Polish to celebrate their culture but the 42% who regard themselves as Irish citizens will be treated differently, although they are the largest group.

Its ok to be Irish.  Just dont be Irish here. Which is ok.

Effectively it was a debate between “faux get alongerism” and “real get alongerism”. The former stating that we can only do so if conditions are met. Accept a “norm” then “get along”.

Obviously Im neither “young” nor a SDLP member but there was something peculiarly back to the future about it all. The old school debating society (1968-70) and the cross community trip to Belfast Royal Academy……renditions of two national anthems to annoy each other. A trip to see” Cry The Beloved Country” in the Whitla Hall at Queens and the cross community punch up and the return leg (“A Man For All Seasons” at the Opera House). Punch ups and anthems!.

Im too old for that carry on and the Young UUP and Young SDLP are much too sensible.

The evening ended with the GAA personality handing out invitations to the Quarter Finals next “Saturday” which will include trips to the Croke Park Museum………for er unionists only!!!.No freebies for Nationalist Young SDLP and their elderly supporters.

But obviously GAA fans last night were kinda starstruck and I ended up with an autograph……..for my grandson. Er obviously. But was this worthwhile? Yes.

Yet the atmosphere surrounding last night. Either the Bad Faith.Or the accusation of Bad Faith will I think mitigate against further cross community “debate”.

Just a few other points omitted from my original article.

In relation to the point often made about the GAA that clubs are named after Republican “terrorists”. Well seemingly (according to the GAA guy) there are only two such examples… being the club in Dungiven named for Kevin Lynch who died on hunger strike in 1981. Seemingly Kevin Lynch was a member of the club and a member of the (county) Derry hurling team. The club was “re-named”. As I pointed out from the floor there is a point where Politics becomes History.

There are clubs named for leaders of the 1916 Rising. Historic. My own club is named for a leader of the 1798 Rebellion………a Protestant and Irelands “first Republican hero” Wolfe Tone. The nearest other club  three miles down the road) is named for 1690s Jacobite, Patrick Sarsfield. History is……..ongoing.

And the unofficial trappings of the Orange Order……the underbelly of “kick the Pope” bands or bonfires burning Irish flags and emblems. “F” had already made clear that bonfires burning Irish flags are not official Orange Lodge sanctioned occasions but the reality is that they are part of broader Orange “culture”. As a bonfire last week had burned SDLP election posters of Magdalena Wolska for whom fellow panellist “S” was election agent………I asked from the floor if “F” would condemn such an unfriendly act. In fairness he did…….and when pressed further stated that he did not approve of any symbol or flag burning.

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