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Brendan Crossan: GAA throws gauntlet down to Belfast clubs with £1m investment

GAA President John Horan and Antrim chairman Collie Donnelly with the pupils of St Bride's at last week's Gaelfast launch at Belfast's City Hall. The challenge is to increase participation rates in Gaelic Games among primary school children

A WHILE back the members of St Enda’s, Glengormley produced a stunning 56-page booklet on the life and times of esteemed member Gerry Devlin.

For many years, Gerry was one of the driving forces of the St Enda’s club. The booklet is laced with heart-warming tales of Gerry’s association with St Enda’s and the rough terrain the club has travelled.

Situated in the outer reaches of north Belfast, it is conservatively estimated that St Enda’s was attacked 16 times during the conflict.

Gerry was murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries at the gates of the club on December 5 1997.

He was murdered for being a GAA member. He was 36.

The booklet is a fitting tribute to a great Gael and must be a source of great comfort to his family.

“Glengormley was a dangerous place,” writes St Enda’s club member Eamonn Prenter.

“It was an outpost. The ‘field’ and the club house, at that stage a former pig sty were isolated, surrounded by fields and lonely lanes.

“We had a field to play on, not a pitch, and sectarian turf wars played out most weekends below in Glengormley.”

Flicking through the booklet offered a sobering reminder of how bad things were in the city and the realisation that it wasn’t that long ago.

A few months after Gerry Devlin was gunned down, the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

I’ve great admiration for the members of St Enda’s.

They are stubborn mules.

At the time of Gerry’s death, the club had 14 teams. Now they have over 30.

Their underage work is paying handsome dividends.

Joe Maskey has risen through the ranks to become a regular in the Antrim senior hurling team.

Likewise, Peter Healy with the senior footballers.

At every level you’ll see St Enda’s players on county team-sheets.

The conflict - or the softer focus term, 'The Troubles' - ravaged many parts of the north, particularly Belfast.

With ceaseless spirit St Enda’s still managed to flourish in terrible circumstances.

But not everybody did.

There are still many parts of the city that carry the scars of a bloody past.

As a consequnce, it’s not easy to grow the game in a patchwork city like Belfast.

In years gone by, the GAA hierarchy has paid plenty of lip service to Belfast being Ireland’s ‘second city’ but probably didn’t prioritise its needs.

Politically speaking, Belfast was a hot potato that didn’t get the leg up it needed and demanded from the Association since the historic agreement was signed 20 years ago.

It’s hard enough to grow the game in urban centres, but Belfast? Where do you start?

Speaking at the launch of ‘Gaelfast’ last Friday, new President John Horan described the GAA as consisting of 32 small businesses and “you have to look at them in a different context”.

Belfast has a very different context.

There were times when the GAA at central level might have intervened in the internal affairs of Antrim but didn’t.

The Games Development funding has always been significant but where Antrim GAA needed assistance more was in areas of creating better structures, better governance and financial strategy.

Before committing any additional funding the GAA, it seemed, wanted to see evidence of better governance.

Since sweeping to power a couple of years ago, the group Saffron Vision has transformed the county, at least in financial terms.

Corporate fundraising has improved immeasurably.

Basically, Antrim has got their house in order.

“Antrim GAA is better off to the tune in excess of £200,000 per annum from private ventures that we have encouraged and attracted people to,” vice-chairman Terry Reilly explained.

Antrim officialdom have ticked all the boxes asked of them and that’s why the GAA has agreed to commit £1m to the ‘Gaelfast’ project – a scheme to rejuvenate Gaelic Games in Belfast primary schools – over the next five years.

When you break down £1m over that period of time – every penny will be spent on wages for a Regeneration Manager, administrator and Urban Development Officers - it’s not a lot of money and the tone in which it was delivered by the GAA was decidedly tentative.

Horan cautioned that the GAA needed to see “results and outcomes” for their £1m investment, while new Director-General Tom Ryan told reporters they would be keeping a close eye on the progress of the ‘Gaelfast’ project.

Both men acknowledged the importance of trying to revive Gaelic Games in the city.

If Croke Park get the desired “results and outcomes” you would imagine they’ll be more generous down the line.

The £1m investment also calms the cat calls among the Belfast membership that the GAA is not doing enough for the city compared to the zillions they’ve lavished on Dublin.

Of course, there are important clauses attached to the GAA’s £1m investment, one of which is the challenge it lays down at the door of Belfast clubs.

It’s a case of: ‘You’ve got your hand-out – now back it up with your volunteerism.’

“If the clubs don’t buy into this, they might as well go on the piss with the money,” was one acerbic comment from an Antrim observer.

There are many clubs in the city doing great work – St Enda’s is a case in point – but there are others who are hanging by a thread.

If some clubs are to survive they really need to consider amalgamating with others to keep Gaelic Games alive in their area.

The £1m windfall merely creates an opportunity for Belfast clubs to help themselves – to interact in a more structured way with primary schools, to tap into the coaching expertise of the urban development officers, to turn up at the various sports hubs dotted around the city and to tell the children there’s more out there than Manchester United and Liverpool.

All Antrim needs now is a few inspiring appointments and the clubs to rise to the challenge.

That's when the hard work begins...

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