Brendan Crossan: Gaels entitled to be part of civic society as much as anyone else

Camogie star Jane Adams and footballer Paddy Cunningham told a Feile panel this week of their campaign urging the Taoiseach to prepare for a new Ireland
Camogie star Jane Adams and footballer Paddy Cunningham told a Feile panel this week of their campaign urging the Taoiseach to prepare for a new Ireland

GAELS are on the move - with or without the official support of Croke Park or acknowledgement of Leinster House.

As part of Féile an Phobail, Gaels and interested observers gathered for last night’s discussion, ‘Gaels La Chéile’ [Gaels together] at St Mary’s University.

It was a very successful and well attended event where GAA personalities Terence McNaughton, Jane Adams, Paddy Cunningham and Ashling Thompson gave their thoughts on the trajectory they envisage for the Gaels La Chéile campaign, which continues to lobby the Taoiseach to begin the debate for Irish reunification and wants a fully representative Citizens' Assembly formed to help prepare the ground for a referendum.

Just last month, and to mark its centenary, the Seanad announced it was inviting submissions on the “constitutional future of the Island of Ireland” and wanted to hear from “individuals, interested groups and organisations… and welcomes the voices of the Unionist community and their vision for the future."

Gaels La Chéile would come under the “interested groups” category. For some in the GAA, they might feel uneasy about the Gael-on-Gael initiative, conceived in Antrim in the early throes of lockdown, that it’s too political and potentially divisive within and outside of the Association.

It began under the banner ‘Gaels letter to the Taoiseach’ in May 2020, which was spearheaded by former Antrim players Jane Adams and Paddy Cunningham.

A couple of casual chats over coffee grew legs and soon over 3,000 Gaels in Antrim alone had signed the letter – including the senior county hurlers and footballers.

Now running under the all-encompassing name - Gaels La Chéile – there is a tremendous energy about the campaign if last night’s panel discussion was anything to go by.

Some would argue those who have articulated their support for the group's aims and objectives that footballers, hurlers, camogs, handballers and all other grassroots members should stick to playing Gaelic Games and leave the politicking and discussions over Irish unity to the elected classes.

We’ve heard the refrain that it’s probably ingrained in all of us by now: never mix politics and sport. But what if the politics of the day are failing people? So many have completely zoned out from northern politics because of its stagnant nature.

Gaels La Chéile is in effect civic society reaching out, articulating itself, demanding a better way forward, urging a less tribal politics.

The hurler in Dungiven and the footballer in Swanlinbar are as much part of civic society as they are part of the GAA.

Why should GAA members keep their heads down and just stick to playing football or hurling?

In fact, they should be encouraged to engage in such era-defining debates and try and make the society they live in better?

The ramifications of 'Brexit' has undoubtedly accelerated the debate about how a new Ireland might look like and where unionism's place will be in it.

Why leave it to intermittent elections that produce exactly the same results and outcomes as last time no matter how many times we put an 'X' beside someone's name in a polling booth?

If civic society manages to organise itself and builds a fully representative Citizens' Assembly, it might be the one vital dynamic that makes the current political system more pliable.

When asked should politics and sport mix, Terence McNaughton used the campaign Neil McManus, the Antrim hurler, has been involved in over the last number of years.

The Cushendall clubman has been a strong advocate of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution [RNLI] which has tangibly improved the general well-being of isolated, rural communities with better emergency services and provision.

Neil's own father's life [Hugh] was saved after he'd suffered a heart attack when a first responder arrived on the scene. First responders work hand in hand with the local RNLI.

McManus has used his profile as a well-known GAA player in a meaningful sense, to make his community better as a result of his 'Respect the Water' and other related campaigns.

There are more defibrillators in rural areas and in GAA clubs by him raising awareness. So, if someone like Neil McManus can play an active role in improving the community he lives in, why should he not do the same on a national level?

The Gaels La Chéile campaign has good intentions at heart.

“When the Good Friday Agreement was signed here I was only 15,” said Jane Adams.

“It felt there were new opportunities coming, it felt like a new beginning. When you think of our parents at that age, their opportunities were completely limited in terms of education and work prospects.

“We are the generation that’s benefited from the Good Friday Agreement and looking ahead for the next 25 years I see so more opportunities for society to move further, and I’d like it to be done in an inclusive way without fear or prejudice.”

She added: “Everyone is entitled to feel no fear and that everybody’s equal. Everybody should be allowed to be who they are and what they are without fear or prejudice. That’s what I would hope for and that this country belongs to everyone, so they can celebrate their identity in any form they want to.”

There have been a few sling shots aimed at the GAA over the past couple of months from political unionism and others.

And there will be more aimed at the Association in the future because Gaels La Chéile has the ‘temerity’ to campaign for Irish unity.

But the political discourse here sorely needs a change of direction.

Civic society needs to flex its considerable muscle. The GAA player is as much a part of civic society as anyone else.