Danny Hughes: GAA can do more to bring orange and green together

The symbolism of the tricolour, for the unity of orange and green, was got somewhat lost down the years and the GAA has a big part in bringing all communities together again

THIS year marks the 170-year anniversary of the Irish flag. It has a very special and very divisive place in Irish society. Over the years volunteers, scholars and poets have laid down their life for the cause of Irish freedom.

Whether it was flying over the GPO, Collins Barracks or flying in west Belfast, the Tricolour represented an ideal, a way of living in freedom in a place you can call your own.

The Tricolour takes pride of place in the GAA, hanging on the walls of clubs anywhere from Crossmaglen to Chicago; it unites a people who have a deep-rooted affiliation and sense of belonging to the island of Ireland.

The actual symbolism behind the flag was the coming together of the two traditions. The Catholic ‘Green’ and Protestant ‘Orange’, separated only by a white space.

The GAA was established by a group of non-religious idealists, who hoped to incorporate both religions in order to celebrate Irish culture ‘as one’.

You were Irish first and either Catholic or Protestant second.

The very idea that you could not play Gaelic Games because you were a Protestant was never supposed to be the idea.

Unfortunately, due to the sectarian nature of the Troubles, some volunteers in the GAA forgot that many of the greatest Irish men and Irish women of the past were in fact Protestants.

Somehow, the GAA and politics became intertwined and despite the many protestations that the GAA was a non-political organisation, it inevitably drifted there.

GAA clubs, fields and community halls were all named for various reasons, legitimate or otherwise, after dead Republicans.

It appeared that the GAA became a cold place for Protestants throughout Ireland from the 1960s onwards.

Claims of collusion between the state forces and loyalist paramilitary organisations regularly emerged as GAA members were targeted.

This drove the hatred further into both communities.

I was lucky in the sense that I was born in the 1980s and got to finally see an end to regular daily violence via the Good Friday Agreement.

Before that, though, I remember the helicopters flying personnel to and from strategic locations and, on many occasions, we would stop the football match we were playing as children and run over the fields trying to get a glimpse of the army on patrol in the south Down countryside.

On one occasion, I recall playing in the forest beside our home and kicking the ball over the hedge at my brother.

When we went into the forest to retrieve it, the ‘Brits’ were camping behind a wall eating their lunch.

As they handed the ball back, they invited us to have a kick-about and, as six- and seven-year-olds, here we were showing them the skills of Gaelic football and playing a match.

From memory, those soldiers were young. It’s only now I appreciate that it was more likely than not that these guys were from poor backgrounds, the British Army being their ‘way out’ of their own deprived community. They no more wanted to be there than we wanted them.

What bonded us that day was our love of football and of sport. Religion had nothing to do with it.

When I meet my own Protestant neighbours and friends, I have always felt they made a special effort to learn more about Gaelic football and how Down and Saval were progressing.

Indeed, some of those same people came to watch the games on many occasions and loved the atmosphere, especially the community spirit and amateur element of the sport.

For too long, the GAA has been unwilling to address the past, especially concerning the special status in Northern Ireland it has always operated within.

Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we have not yet made any great strides in welcoming our Protestant neighbours into the sport and increasing their participation rates in GAA.

Is the onus on us or on them, you may ask? We need to move further. We have to put out our hands in solidarity.

In light of Brexit, the GAA community in the north, who number quite a few, are facing a very uncertain future.

I believe that all communities are going to be affected in a future outside the EU.

In the absence of any agreement between political parties, the GAA community can embrace all sides of the community and represent them instead.

GAA victims’ families, who suffered during the Troubles, continue to seek justice and Protestant victims’ families who have suffered also deserve the same justice.

The one thing they all share in common is that they remain victims and, until something changes, this small territory can never move on.

Likewise, the GAA needs to move on and accept that they can play a greater role in society.

A ‘hands off’ approach is all well and good, but we cannot allow the Association to ‘drift’ into non-relevance either. They have already done this with lasting consequences.

It is the GAA community I feel close to. I do not feel any political party represents me and, to be honest, given the recent collapse of any meaningful representation, the whole process lacks credibility on all sides. I believe in a shared space where Catholic and Protestants can play Gaelic football and intertwine as equals in society.

The GAA has rightly opened up our Games to other sports and lifted the ban on players participating in our game working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

However, that was nearly 20 years ago and, since then, progress has been slow to non-existent.

We in the GAA have done little to nothing in terms of investment or promotion within Protestant communities, north or south.

This doesn’t mean ridding ourselves of Amhrán na bhFiann nor the Tricolour at our games as suggested by some in the past.

The green and orange brought both these traditions together 170 years ago, so why try to reinvent the wheel at this stage?

It means including and valuing Protestant culture in a new Ireland, whether a future hard or soft border separates this.

The GAA can be a place of sport and progress and can lose the sectarianism that was allowed to drift into a space uniquely occupied by the Association in the north.

It can help to reconcile communities and make progress where political parties fail.

And it can start by embracing Protestant communities in the north in a meaningful way.

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