John McEntee: Joe Brolly and Jarlath Burns can provide leadership for northern Gaels

Jarlath Burns

Something has changed. There is a sharpness in the air, an irate, itchy feel which makes me feel uncomfortable. You know that apprehension when you are in foul mood and someone is trying to tickle you to cheer you up and it’s painful rather than funny?

What has brought it on is the escalated discussions regarding a border poll. To be more specific, it is the correlation of the possible role of the GAA in a border poll. For many weeks there have been discussions among friends in private rooms right across the north about this very topic. Yet, that is the main problem – the issue of a border poll is predominantly a concern of the people in the six counties, with virtually no external recognition, apart from a few ignored voices in perhaps Cork, Tipperary or inner city Dublin.

People in the south are generally uninterested in the affairs of the north unless there are fiscal implications. Years of prosperity have swollen the middle class ranks and eroded their sense of nationalism on a 32-county basis.

Comparisons with Mrs Bouquet and her down-market sisters would not be out of place.

These conversations around the hearth have stepped up a level.

Suddenly that same topic is being debated on national media by people with influence. This journey has suddenly become very rocky. In periods of turbulence, a captain advises to sit down, strap in and ride it out.

Up until now this debate within general society has been rudderless.

Sure, politicians on all sides have been vocal on the matter, but it is hard to take your lead from a group who are absent most of the time.

Two significant figures in nationalist circles have stepped forward; Jarlath Burns (above, left) and Joe Brolly (right). Both men are incredibly articulate, intelligent and engaging. In an opportunistic move, they’ve positioned themselves as the spokespersons for northern nationalism on one of the most critical GAA discussions of our time – should the GAA articulate a view on the border poll and champion the cause of northern nationalism?

As GAA HQ remains silent on this debate, it is incumbent on both men to provide leadership and to remove the stigma associated with articulating one’s own beliefs and aspirations. They are proxy GAA leaders. If your worry is that the tail is wagging the dog then you might want to ask ‘what is paralysing the dog’?

It is remarkable that the GAA have not articulated a view on a border poll. Are they keeping their powder dry until the British secretary of state triggers the border poll?

If so, then their discussion in Headquarters is one of timing rather than principles as the latter should have already been decided.

A university professor named Lee Bolman once said a vision without a strategy remains an illusion. The GAA articulate a vision of a united Ireland in their article of association but, as of yet, the strategy remains unknown.

Soon there will be a border poll; the second such poll since partition, with the last one in 1973 uncontested by nationalists. Ireland is a different place now. Northern nationalists are more confident, better educated than before and their minds are generally tolerant to diversity.

The GAA remains an institution which promotes Irish games and culture. It is non-party political.

We should not seek to change this position, particularly north of the border.

As an organisation, the GAA has become all-embracing and this is to be celebrated. It is an organisation which provides sporting and cultural opportunities to anyone who wishes to taste its wares, irrespective of your political or religious background. It is at this juncture where I feel tetchy.

I worry that politicians will twist the debate to make it sound that the GAA are anti-protestant,


Maybe this debate should be led by people in civic society so that it becomes non-political; people like Jarlath and Joe, minus the trappings of the GAA.

This should not be about tribal politics. It should be about what is in the best interests of all of the people who live on this island. These men should take to the airwaves and should travel the length and breadth of the country stimulating debate.

They should be invited to events along the Ards Peninsula or in east Antrim as often as south Armagh, Derry or mid-Tyrone. They should share top tables with people of similar magnitude in unionist heartlands.

In this way, sports, education, business, arts and culture and so on can be used as exemplars of a modern Ireland to demonstrate the benefits of whichever side of the debate you sit on.

Important debates need to take place whether they make you uncomfortable or not.

They need to be led by people who can articulate a clear vision that others will follow.

It seems that two people who can engender broader support have been self-selected. The only question remains is whether the GAA will support their position or provide an alternative strategy.

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