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Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill singles out 'exceptional' role of GAA during pandemic while 'noting' organisation's concerns over pitch invasion

First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill have both reacted to a GAA game on Sunday, during which fans stormed the pitch
Seanín Graham

DEPUTY First Minister Michelle O'Neill has "noted" the GAA's warning to fans following a pitch invasion - but singled out the organisation's "exceptional" community response to the pandemic.

The Sinn Féin northern leader's comments came after First Minister Arlene Foster expressed her "deep concerns" about crowds racing onto the field at Omagh's Healy Park following Dungannon Clarkes' victory over Trillick in the Tyrone football final on Sunday.

In a statement released yesterday, the Ulster GAA said the scenes "cannot be repeated", accepting they "not only breached GAA protocols but, and much more significantly, public health guidelines".

However, the sporting organisation also said its community members had "led the way" since the Covid-19 outbreak and worked closely with public health bodies to ensure players and spectators could make a safe return.

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Ms O'Neill, who is also a Mid-Ulster Assembly member, congratulated the Dungannon team on their historic victory, the first in 64 years after after a penalty shoot-out.

She added: "I note the concerns expressed by Ulster GAA in relation to the fact that people did get carried away with the excitement of the win and ran on to the field. I acknowledge the GAA's continued commitment to the public health guidelines."

The deputy first minister praised the community work of the amateur sporting organisation over the past six months, particularly during stringent lockdown restrictions.

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"The GAA has been exceptional and central to the community response since the beginning of the pandemic. At the heart of our community the players, managers and supporters worked tirelessly to mind their community in delivering food parcels and looking out for the most vulnerable," she said.

In a tweet, Ms Foster also supported the Dungannon team's "significant milestone" but said the virus was "no respecter of victories".

She wrote: "Deeply concerned about the images from yesterday's GAA match. Other events being responsible. Sport & health will be the losers. UlsterGAA need to address this. Serious questions arising from videos."

Ulster GAA has a section of its website dedicated to keeping people safe during the pandemic, while a special Covid-19 advisory group was established within the body to inform the safe resumption of activities.

More games are due to be played over coming weeks and a Ulster GAA spokesman said yesterday they risk going back to a position where "games will be played behind closed doors".

He urged people to "behave responsibly".

Up to 400 fans can attend matches north of the border, while the Republic's government last month banned all spectators at sporting fixtures due to a spike in coronavirus cases.

The Ulster GAA said it is "strongly re-iterating its message that no spectators should enter the field of playing following games".

They added: "The GAA has put in place protocols surrounding all aspects of the playing of games and, for the greater part, they have been universally observed. Over the weekend there were adult County Finals in six of our nine counties and evidence from across the province is that these protocols were adhered to, with spectators remaining in the stand during post-match presentations.

"....We fully realise that this was a moment of great joy for the Dungannon Clarkes Club in winning their first County title since 1956 and congratulations to them on this success. The dramatic nature of the conclusion of the game probably added to the exuberance but we are living in a pandemic and the post-match scenes did not portray the Association in a positive light.

"With more County Finals due in the coming weeks, Ulster GAA is again appealing to all our units to behave responsibly."

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