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Irish News Editor Noel Doran recalls day he found himself chatting to Edwin Poots at GAA game

Sports minster Edwin Poots, GAA president Nicky Brennan and Ulster GAA president Tom Daly in the stand looking goalward at Pairc Esler in Newry for the Donegal v Down game in 2008
Noel Doran

IT would be fair to say that it is not every day that you find yourself sitting beside Edwin Poots at a GAA game.

As it happened, the meeting of Down and Donegal in the McKenna Cup on a cold January night back in 2008 was indeed a suitably unusual occasion.

I settled into my familiar place towards the back of the main stand at Pairc Esler in Newry, among the usual long suffering regulars, only to get a tap on the shoulder from a GAA official who asked if I would be available to join a small gathering in the Ard Comhairle section.

It became clear that the late and much missed Ulster GAA director Danny Murphy wanted an informal group to chat to a visiting dignitary, who turned out to be the then Stormont sports minister Mr Poots.

There was a degree of sensitivity but also a little bit of history about the engagement, as he was becoming the first DUP minister to attend a GAA match, so I was happy to accept the invitation.

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It was good that he came, although it’s hard to say what his father, Charles, an outspoken founder member of the DUP half a century ago this year, would have made of the engagement.

My father, Arthur, a life-long GAA activist who was among those who helped to purchase the Newry venue some decades earlier, would definitely have approved.

The minister arrived slightly late, presumably to miss Amhrán na bhFiann, and was polite but reserved while maintaining a fixed and faint smile throughout the proceedings.

While I formed the impression that I was primarily there to discuss how the newly reformed executive was progressing, in case his interest in the McKenna Cup began to wane, I still took the opportunity to put a crucial sporting question to the minister.

He is obviously from Lisburn, but, given that the Lagan forms the boundary between counties Down and Antrim, I needed to establish which bank of the river he calls home.

Mr Poots declared an allegiance with the southern side, which may not have previously happened very often, and I insisted that we were therefore both equally entitled to regard ourselves as Down supporters.

He didn't disagree immediately, so, encouraged, I set out my detailed thoughts on Down's central place in the heritage of the GAA and why I could detect signs of an overdue revival in the fortunes of our senior football team.

His faint smile returned, as he may have deduced that I have a record of making similar predictions which are not always reliable, but our attention was then distracted by two unexpected developments.

The first was that Down began to take apart their well regarded opponents, with one brilliant score following another, and the second was that a prominent Donegal woman in our vicinity responded by turning the air blue.

Every known swear word was loudly and repeatedly aimed at the underperforming visitors, and for the first time the grin on the part of Mr Poots, whether of humour or disbelief, became much wider.

We beamed back at each other as Down cruised to victory, with a talented young forward called John McAreavey finishing as top scorer on his debut with 2-3. It looked as though a glittering county career beckoned, but fate, and the tragic death of his wife, Michaela, on their honeymoon three years later, decided otherwise.

I said my farewells to Mr Poots that night, and he turned out to be a lucky omen for Down as we went on to win the 2008 McKenna Cup, the last trophy our county has managed to lift in senior men's football, a month later.

We did get to the All Ireland final in 2010, losing to Cork by a point, and I'd like to think that the politician who became DUP leader on Friday might even have been quietly supporting his home county that day.

I hope we will meet up again, either at Pairc Esler or elsewhere, and, by coincidence, Down will face Donegal at the same ground, this time in the Ulster Championship, at the end of next month.

It is due to be played behind closed doors, under the GAA's existing pandemic regulations, but I am considering presenting myself at the gate and informing the stewards that I am a close associate of Mr Poots. How could they turn me away?

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