Why are Catholics still being attacked for wearing GAA jerseys? - The Irish News view

Portadown assault and campaign against East Belfast GAA show how far we still have to travel on the road of respect and intolerance

Marty McWilliams who was assulted in Portadown. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Marty McWilliams who was assaulted in Portadown after being singled out because he was wearing a GAA jersey (Mal McCann)

It remains a depressing truism of life in Northern Ireland that for all the progress that has been made, the spectre of sectarianism still looms large far too often and in far too many of our communities.

A graphic example of how far we still have to journey on the road to respecting one another came in Portadown at the weekend, where a Catholic man was singled out for attack because he was wearing a GAA top.

It is ludicrous that anyone should be subjected to violence because of their clothing, and police are treating the episode as a sectarian hate crime.

Marty McWilliams was assaulted by two men in the Mahon Road area of the Co Armagh town on Sunday. He was not wearing one of the more familiar Ulster GAA jerseys, but instead was wearing the colours of Los San Patricos, a GAA club established only last year in Mexico City. It is the country’s only GAA club and says it prides itself on diversity and inclusion.

Nonetheless, Mr McWilliams, a 34-year-old father-of-four, was challenged about why he was “wearing that f**king top around here”.

When he returned to his car, he had sectarian abuse hurled at him and was then attacked. Mr McWilliams said he defended himself as his assailants, one of whom had a bottle, tried to stop him getting into his car, sustaining injuries to his hand in the process. Damage valued at £3,500 was caused to the vehicle.

There are those in society who have a complete and inexplicable intolerance of anything to do with Gaelic games. That is profoundly sad, especially when sport offers such a positive influence

Mr McWilliams, understandably under the circumstances, said he feared for his life.

“This should not have happened in 2024,” he said, which is surely a sentiment that all people concerned for the common good will echo.

The PSNI have acted swiftly; two men, aged 43 and 47, were arrested on suspicion of common assault and criminal damage. They have been released on bail and the police say they are making further enquiries.

Mr McWilliams, a former Cliftonville FC coach, said that when he lived in Belfast his home was on an interface. “I have seen so much of the Troubles,” he reflected. “I have no time for it - I know sectarianism.”

It is important to stress that this attack is not representative of Portadown today, though the town was for many years at the centre of the bitter and often violent Drumcree parade dispute, around which deadly tensions frequently erupted.

As the experiences of East Belfast GAA also show, there are elements who have a complete and inexplicable intolerance of anything to do with Gaelic games. That is profoundly sad, especially when sport offers such a positive influence.

We should hope for cooler heads, and the building of better relationships between all of our communities.