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Peadar Heffron's story needed to be told for a better GAA

Former PSNI constable Peadar Heffron who lost his leg in a terrorist attack pictured with with former GAA player and pundit Joe Brolly at the Dub in Belfast during a PSNI v Gardai match Photo: Presseye/Stephen Hamilton.

IT’S a pity Peadar Heffron didn’t keep his mouth shut.

Worse, he had to go and tell Joe Brolly everything.

Guaranteed noise.

It was the kind of story that had ‘soft’ nationalism up in arms.

He told Joe how he’d hurled and played Gaelic football for Antrim GAA club Creggan Kickhams and how much he loved the Irish language.

He told Joe why he joined the PSNI, the new police service, created under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement.

How he was forced out of his GAA club for joining the cops.

And how he almost died in a booby-trap bomb placed under his car on January 8 2010 by dissident Republicans.

The thing was Peadar Heffron wasn't supposed to be around seven years later to tell his awful tale.

He lost his right leg as a result of his injuries.

I feel sympathy for the Creggan Kickhams club insofar as we could be talking about any GAA club in the 'Wee Six' and how they had the misfortune to have one of their own join the cops.

Peadar Heffron's is such a powerful story.

When I read Joe's article a couple of Sunday nights ago I judged it on its own merits.

I wondered what Peadar’s life must be like seven years on from that horrific attack on his life.

I tried to imagine his daily struggle, his pain, what a bad day was like and what a good day was like for him.

Joe ended the article with these lines.

“This is the first time he has spoken publicly about his life. As we are about to leave, I ask him: "What's your life like?" He says: "It's a life. But it's not my life."

That simple exchange went some way in conveying the ‘life’ that the former Creggan Kickhams clubman leads today and every day.

It was never destined to be one of those desperately sad stories where the singular focus remained on Peadar’s life.

The ripple-effect will be felt for some time.

As for the DUP, the great state-builders of our time they are not.

Their kind of erratic, evangelical political unionism does not challenge Irish nationalism/republicanism in any meaningful way.

As a result, Irish nationalism/republicanism can become complacent at times, largely monolithic and intellectually sluggish.

Challenges from within Irish nationalism do emerge from time to time.

Whether it’s in the political arena, civil society or one’s own personal life, we often need to be challenged – or to be stretched – in order to grow.

Peadar Heffron’s story is one such challenge.

It depends on whether we’re prepared to embrace it.

Over 70 per cent voted for the Good Friday Agreement – warts and all.

If you find yourself residing among that 70 per cent or more, then Peadar Heffron deserves your support and compassion.

He always did.

Now, that is not to say the PSNI is perfect. Far from it.

But Peadar chose the same starting point as the vast majority of northern society.

Others are still searching for theirs.

With such a ground-breaking political accord – signed all those years ago – you can’t treat it like an a la carte menu to the extent where you pick the bits you like and dismiss the bits you don’t.

The reason why Peadar’s story is so profound is because it makes us examine our own individual conscience.

It’s the kind of case that visits us in our quiet moments, far away from the crowd.

Did Peadar Heffron deserve better from the GAA? Of course he did.

Since telling his story, Peadar has been supported and derided.

Likewise, Joe Brolly.

The sad thing is that it’s impossible to discuss Peadar’s story without hyperbole and rigid ideology swirling around it.

In all the years working in the media, I’ve been sceptical towards press statements.

They’re too strategic. Too carefully worded. Too contrived. And sometimes too smart for their own good. They can often backfire.

There was always going to be a PR drive on behalf of Creggan Kickhams club – and they were well within their rights to challenge some insinuations emanating from the article.

The statement, quite naturally, defended its reputation and its important role in the local community.

But the statement also missed a trick.

For there’s a wider debate needed within the broad church of the GAA.

While many expressed their abhorrence of Peadar Heffron’s shunning by his club, there were others who took the easier option and threw stones at Joe Brolly.

It was easier for people to back the Kickhams club via social media and at the same time ignore Peadar Heffron’s terrible plight - or dismissing him as a foolish dreamer for joining the PSNI in the first instance.

We must ask questions of ourselves. Sometimes uncomfortable questions.

We must use Peadar’s story as a challenge – a challenge to be better, more compassionate and to show more humanity when the opportunity presents itself.

After all, these should be the basic tenets of any life philosophy or political ideology.

The eternal hope is that Peadar Heffron will be welcomed back to his old club one day where some kind of healing process can begin.

And the GAA will be better for it.


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