Flag and anthem remarks a significant step for GAA

DUP minister Paul Givan playing Gaelic football in Lisburn last week
Brendan Hughes

IT came as quite a surprise to the assembled media when Aogán Ó Fearghaíl made his comments in Dubai.

Although asked about the use of the tricolour and anthem overseas, the GAA president immediately made reference to their use within Ireland.

Change would only come as part of an "agreed Ireland", he said – but added that "we should never have closed minds" to such matters.

His remarks on Monday may be somewhat nuanced, but they signal a step-change at the top of the GAA.

For generations the tricolour and Amhrán na bhFiann have been a permanent fixture at GAA matches across Ireland.

By contrast, other major sports usually restrict such flag-flying and anthem-singing to international events.

The GAA has more in common in this respect with sporting culture in the US, where even at small school tournaments the Star-Spangled Banner is sung and American flag raised in displays of unyielding patriotism.

Significant efforts have been made over the years to broaden the GAA's appeal – and particularly to reach out to the north's unionist community.

But the use of the tricolour and Irish national anthem have been regarded as among factors discouraging some unionists from engaging with Gaelic games.

Proponents of change would point to how other sports have reaped the benefits of reaching agreement on flags and symbols. In rugby, Ireland has a celebrated all-island team and the sport's popularity has soared.

For many grassroots GAA members, removing the flag and anthem would be seen as diluting the association's proud Irish identity.

It might be a step too far for some, but all the while small steps of change are still being made.

Just last week DUP minister Paul Givan joined a kick-about with children at a GAA club in Lisburn – a small but widely-praised gesture that many thought they would never see.

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