GAA has central role to play in smashing down sectarian walls

Andy Watters

Andy Watters

Andy is a sports reporter at The Irish News. His particular areas of expertise are Gaelic Football and professional boxing but he has an affinity for many other sports. Andy has been nominated three times for the Society of Editors Sports Journalist of the Year award and was commended for his inventiveness as a sub-editor in the IPR awards.

Learned behaviour... The group of kids I coached might have included the best hockey player ever to hold a stick but we’ll never know if they don’t get a chance to play the game.
Learned behaviour... The group of kids I coached might have included the best hockey player ever to hold a stick but we’ll never know if they don’t get a chance to play the game.

THE criticism of the Orange Order and the July bonfires was always going to provoke a backlash and it came in the furore over the PSNI GAA team’s withdrawal from a ‘Dads and lads’ tournament at Banbridge’s Clann na Banna club and, this week, Coalisland's Francis Hughes Memorial Tournament.

The commentary was a stark reminder of the mistrust of and hostility - which cuts both ways - towards the GAA in some sections of the Protestant community.

I've been surprised by how deep it runs. I remember a fitness coach who’d been running classes at a GAA club for quite a while telling me how he couldn’t, in all good conscience, “Spend the 12th (of July) night in a GAA club”.

I thought he was joking but he cancelled the class because he believed that his being on GAA ground on a sacred date on the Protestant calendar was a step too far and it was akin to me going to an Orange Hall on St Patrick’s Day.

It isn’t.

“You’re as welcome here as anyone else,” I pleaded with him.

“You could play for this club, captain the team, be the chairman if you’re into it. But I couldn’t join the Orange Order…”

He had an innate scepticism and couldn’t see beyond it. For him, the GAA was for “the other side of the house”.

And that mindset is being perpetuated.

When ‘news’ broke of the PSNI team’s withdrawal from that Clann na Banna tournament, the DUP MP for that constituency went straight for the jugular.

“Time for the GAA to deal with this sectarianism,” tweeted an irate Carla Lockhart.

Before long, it emerged that the St Michael’s PSNI team had withdrawn from the tournament of their own accord. There was no sectarianism for the GAA to deal with, in fact the opposite was the case: If the GAA was sectarian the PSNI team wouldn’t have been invited to the tournament in the first place.

But Carla’s sentiment remained out there.


We like to think that things are changing in this society but the pace is frustratingly slow and progress is fragile and delicate and her statement will have hardened hearts on both sides of the divide. How much damage did it do? How much work was undone?

I know from personal experience how hard it is to bridge the gap between our traditions. I’ve been involved in running a ‘Game of 2 Halves’ (half Gaelic Football and half rugby) for a few years now. The torrent of kids from the Protestant community I naively hoped for hasn’t come through but some have taken up the game and it always does my heart good to see them coming through the gates of the club.

There are reasons why it’s so hard to break down the boundaries. One of them is that our two traditions have been conditioned to gravitate towards different sports and kids tend to follow in their parents’ footsteps: If dad played rugby the lad plays rugby, if mum plays camogie the girls play camogie.

Another reason is that youngsters get little or no exposure to other sports during their formative years at school.

During the last term I walked past a state primary school and noticed how the kids were being coached how to play hockey in the playground. Literally two minutes later, I arrived at the nearby Catholic primary school to coach Gaelic Football.

The group of kids I coached might have included the best hockey player ever to hold a stick but we’ll never know if they don’t get a chance to play the game.

Meanwhile, down the road a potential David Clifford could have been running amok with a hockey stick when they might have been a wizard with an O’Neill’s ball.

Again, the way things are, we may never know and our education system has to change.

A COUPLE of years ago former GAA President Peter Quinn told me how he had supported the abandonment of the GAA’s Rule 21 back in 2001. Quinn had been supportive of the rule earlier in his life but he spoke out in favour of getting rid of it after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed.

“When the Peace Process came in, I thought: ‘We can’t be seen to be in any way a barrier to positive developments in the North’,” he said.

Peter, the driving force behind the building of the Croke Park we enjoy today, added: “If Protestants want to be supportive of the GAA they have to make that call, they can’t be forced to do it.

“I don’t think they’re in a position to do that at the present time – you look at the current leaders of political unionism and they’re not the most broad-minded people in the world. Any attempt at moving that way would require a change of heart within elements of the loyalist community.”

What can we in the GAA do to encourage that change of heart? The abolishment of Rule 21 was a move in the right direction but GAA remains a hard sell. The greatest step forward since it has been the establishment of East Belfast GAC.

East Belfast is a blueprint for an inclusive GAA and an inclusive society, but even their plans for a pitch to play on were attacked and the GAA was labelled as “toxic”.

It’s only toxic for someone hell-bent on maintaining the sectarian walls that need to be torn down but again the message was out there loud and clear.


I can’t think of a sport that celebrates its identity and culture more vigorously than the GAA and it takes courage for people from a Protestant background to see past that.

I'm not a fan of politics or religion in sport but I understand too that we can’t rewrite Ireland’s painful history. My own club is named after a Raparee who fought and died in the 17th century and many of our clubs and stadia remember men and women who resisted British rule and lost their lives in a conflict that was not of their making.

That conflict is over now and our clubs should continue to strive to be a neutral space. Yes, we promote Irish culture and Irish sports but you don’t have to be Irish or Catholic to get involved, so please come in.


That’s the message.