Ulster GAA working hard to promote inclusivity
By John Harrington
Breaking down barriers between the Catholic and Protestant communities in the north of Ireland is a difficult challenge, but it’s one that Ulster GAA has been committed to for a long time.
Former Armagh footballer, Diarmaid Marsden, in particular, is working hard in that space as Ulster GAA’s Head of Community Development Department.
He’s convinced that age-old prejudices and misunderstandings can be softened and eventually broken down if there is dialogue and members from both communities are prepared to embrace inclusivity rather than segregation.
He knows this because he has seen it work at first-hand.
One of Ulster GAA’s most long-running and successful cross-community initiatives is the annual Cúchulainn Cup which brings together schools and families from both communities with little or no previous interaction with the GAA.
Each school in a designated town selects pupils who then come together to form an U-16 team that competes in the Cúchulainn Cup.
In this way cross-community friendships are forged between players who would otherwise have not had an opportunity to meet and share such a sporting experience together.
Each year a Cúchulainn team is also chosen to compete in the All Britain Championships, and this year it will be the turn of a boys team from Antrim town and a girls team from Ballymoney in North Antrim to travel to London in July.
If the experience of previous teams is anything to go by, the trip will break down barriers in a way that would not otherwise be possible in a society that is often strictly segregated.
“Two years ago one of the teams was from Banbridge in County Down and we travelled on the 12th of July and the night before a lot of the boys would have been at their local bonfires as part of their cultural celebrations,” says Ulster GAA’s Diarmaid Marsden.
“And the next day they're away putting GAA gear on and playing in a Gaelic Football tournament in London.
“Once you see things like that it's great because everyone just gets on with things and accepts it. And you'd see them mixing together more the more time they spend in one another's company.
“It's hard to get a measure on what the impact will be eight years down the line. Will they still be mixing together? But at least they've had an introduction to our games and also to each other. I suppose we're using sport to bring them together.
“Last year we had a boys team from Ballymoney which would be a very Unionist town. Out of the Protestant school, two of those boys who took part actually then went and played for a club in Derry in the last year.
“Before being part of that Cúchulainn team they had never even tried Gaelic Football or picked up a hurl.”
The Cúchulainn Cup is just one of a number of positive initiatives that Ulster GAA has undertaken to encourage greater inclusivity and cross-community co-operation.
They have also signed up to the ‘Sport Uniting Communities’ initative, which is a 4-year EU PEACE IV funded programme that sees them work with the Irish Football Association and Ulster Rugby.
It brings together volunteers from the three sports organisations with the mission statement of reaching “17,000 people of differing backgrounds, particularly across the political divide, with the aim of changing perceptions and building sustained relationships.”
Another initiative is the ‘Game of Three Halves’ which offers young people from both communities the opportunity to play Gaelic Games, Rugby, and soccer together in sports camps.
Marsden is also enthused by the manner in which the phenomenal success of the GAA’s Healthy Clubs initiative is helping to break down barriers and bring people into the GAA who would previously had no affiliation to it.
“Through a lot of those sorts of healthy clubs initiatives such as a couch to 5k or aerobics classes, whatever is going on in the club setting, we're finding that they're enticing people from both sides of the community to come to GAA clubs who would never have come previously,” said Marsden.
“Putting GAA clubs at the centre of the community in the whole area of health has definitely helped bring people from a different tradition to at least attend events in GAA clubs.
“All of those things add up. There are loads of small steps we are taking in terms of putting the GAA out there and the more we can do the better.
“We have good, strong engagements with a range of groups now such as the PSNI and local councils. I've had to go into Council chambers and defend the GAA and say this is what we do, this is what we are about.
“Once we put forward our case of what we do deliver you can see hearts and minds change a bit or someone might say, 'I didn't realise you did this or that'. The more work we can do in terms of public relations like that the better.”
Progress is being made, but there is still considerable resistance to change and suspicion of the GAA’s motives by many.
“There will always be people too who will remain entrenched in their views,” admits Marsden.
“It can be quite difficult because people are set in their ways and have their mind made up that the GAA is a certain thing and that's all they are and they don't want to promote it in any way, shape, or form.
“Unfortunately, their views are not going to change. Through young people is the way to go.
“They want to try Gaelic Games and are curious about it but they're never going to get coached in their schools unless Ulster GAA or the county boards go in there.
“Once they try the games they enjoy them and that's what we're all about, promoting the games.
“Some people pick up on other things in the GAA constitution such as that we're pro a 32-county Ireland. That's what we are for, we're not going to deny that.
“But you don't need to have any political aims to pick up a hurl and play hurling, and that's the message that we're trying to get across.”
Inclusivity must be a two-way street, and the harsh reality is that many GAA people in the north aren’t themselves inclined to open their arms and embrace those from the other side of the cultural divide.
Ulster GAA is doing their best to set a positive example, but Marsden admits it may be some time yet before engrained prejudices fade away.
“We would deliver inclusivity work-shops with clubs up here in terms of being all-welcoming and opening doors to people whether they be from a different religious background, be of a different ethnicity, or have disabilities,” he said.
“That's a key message that we're trying to promote. Clubs know that if they don't do these things that the opportunities for funding at local level are going to dry up. They have to show themselves to be open and welcoming, that's a big thing.
“We would have meetings I'm sure a lot of our members wouldn't be comfortable with, with PSNI or Government officials or political parties to try to push things forward.
“The late Danny Murphy and now Brian McAvoy as Chief Executive of Ulster GAA have been very proactive in terms of that for a number of years and we would hope that our clubs will also follow that lead.
“It can be hard. The PSNI have a gaelic football team but they can't get anyone to play them. People would still have that perception of the police as being like the RUC of old.
“Last year the Ulster GAA staff played the PSNI in a match but they struggle to find club teams to play, I would love if my own club would play them but I know there are people there who would say 'no, no, no', and tell me I have a short memory.
“Over the next number of years that needs to change and hopefully will, but you can't force people.”
The political vacuum that currently exists in the six counties is another barrier to Ulster GAA’s cross-community efforts.
The number of coaches working in primary schools has had to be cut because there was no minister to sign off on an extension to a coaching programme last year.
In a broader sense, Marsden believes it would be easier to break down barriers if politicians in the north of all hues were had the same enthusiasm about cross-community initiatives that Ulster GAA does.
“Political leadership is needed and we've nothing at the minute in terms of the promotion Gaelic Games or attending Gaelic games and showing that there's nothing to fear, your culture won't be diluted by playing Gaelic Football or hurling.
“That can filter down to the grass-roots level and then the schools. It would be great if our political leaders at a cross-community level helped promote that and deliver that.
“You might get very little return in terms of playing numbers. But if we can publicise better what the GAA is about then I think you will change opinions and perceptions of the GAA.
“We just have to keep trying. Hopefully when there's some political stability more funding opportunities will be available.”
* Go here for further information on Ulster GAA's outreach programmes.