GAA Football

GAA harmony north and south is achievable: former Armagh defender Justin McNulty

Justin McNulty has backed the GAA's decision to quicken its return to action

ARMAGH’S 2002 All-Ireland winning defender Justin McNulty fully expects the Stormont Executive to harmonise their lockdown exit strategy with their southern counterparts so that the GAA can function fluidly as a 32-county organisation.

Following the Irish government’s decision to accelerate its exit strategy last Friday, the GAA responded by bringing forward its own roadmap.

The GAA will open their pitches on Wednesday – five days earlier than originally agreed – but the main contention between the 26 counties and the six counties is the different amounts of players allowed to train in one designated area.

In the south, 15 players will be allowed to train in a designated area of the pitch while only 10 will be able to train together in the six counties (all non-contact).

McNulty, who is an SDLP MLA for Newry & Armagh, said both administrations on the island should be able to align themselves so that there are no “farcical” situations, not just in GAA circles but other team sports.

“I think alignment is achievable,” said McNulty.

“The GAA is a microcosm of what’s happening across the island generally. People in Dundalk go into Newry and people in Newry go into Dundalk. I think the Executive have come to that realisation and has, for the most part, been sensible – and I think they can reach a point where they can harmonise rules and regulations for sport on the island.

“If they didn’t, it would be just farcical.

“Our bases for our All-Ireland campaign were Crossmaglen and Shelagh (across the border). You could have a pitch with 10 people on it and two miles down the road you could have 15 on it.”

The GAA said it would “await guidance” from the Stormont Executive in relation to the amount of people training together, even though it’s fairly certain GAA teams in the six counties will have already embraced the Association’s declared directive.

The early return could also take the sting out of some of the club versus county debates, with county boards now effectively having two more weeks of space to play their club championships.

“I’m not in the Executive but I hope they’ll take a common sense approach. And that goes for all sports – swimming, rugby players, soccer players – who want to see harmonisation right across the island.

“For instance, swimmers have access to pools in the south but not in the north.”

Some still view the GAA’s return to action as too hasty and that more caution should be applied. Speaking to RTE on Saturday, former President Liam O’Neill expressed his reservations.

"We have been magnificently led through this problem by our medics and our politicians,” said ONeill. “I'm just worried that we're taking a foot off the caution pedal at the moment."

McNulty, though, is fully behind the GAA’s attempts to return to normal slightly quicker than anticipated.

“I think the GAA have been brave in terms of the moves they’ve made – especially moving from an ultra-cautious approach to placing their trust in the volunteers and members of the GAA,” said the Mullaghbawn native.

“People are going to be allowed into GAA grounds from next week and that is phenomenal. They’re trusting members to be sensible and to take precautions for fear of any outbreaks of the virus."

The Irish government said up to 200 people will be permitted for outdoor events from June 29 and that number would increase to 500 from July 20.

“This pandemic hasn’t been as bad as we potentially would have thought it would have been – and that is not to lose sight of the amount of people who have died on this island from the virus.

“Initially, we thought we wouldn’t have the space in morgues so when the GAA President [John Horan] made that [cautious] statement [last month], it was right at the time, but we’ve moved on.

“To use a GAA analogy, we can’t take our eye off the ball, we have to remain sensible and try and protect against any further outbreaks. I think the GAA is doing the best it can.”

In response to those who think the Association is moving too swiftly, McNulty said: “But what do you do? Do we shut down indefinitely? I think Conor McKenna’s positive [Covid19] test has caused a bit of a problem in the AFL, but the GAA have been sensible. And I think they are wise enough to know if there is the need to pull back, then they will do that very quickly.”

Club versus county debates will inevitably rage up and down the country, but McNulty says it will always be an issue in the GAA.

“I’m just thrilled that we’re going to have GAA this year. For a long while there we thought 2020 was going to be the year of no sport, the year of no club football, no All-Ireland, so I’m just delighted we’re going to see our club teams and our county teams play.

“I think there will always be club versus county issues and with dual players, and there are going to be problems in relation to the time-frame of the competitions for players to be available for their clubs. But that’s always the case. I’d say get on with it, go out and play ball and deal with what you’ve got to deal with.”

And, unsurprisingly, the former corner-back has backed his native county’s call to play out the remainder of the National League games. With two rounds of games still outstanding, Armagh are well placed to gain promotion to Division One for the first time in Kieran McGeeney’s managerial reign.

“It has to happen. There is too much work that has gone into teams in trying to get that promotion success,” said McNulty.

“I think Armagh deserves the right to fight for promotion and the potential to bring Donegal, Dublin and Kerry into The Athletic Grounds next year would be a fantastic prospect if they got to Division One.”

For now, though, McNulty is looking forward to watching his club Mullaghbawn return to action and Armagh’s Ulster Championship date with Derry later in the year.

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