As we reflect on 2020, it was the 100 year anniversary of Bloody Sunday when Croke Park hosted the Dublin and Tipperary football teams for a great challenge match. Spectators filled the grounds, completely unaware that the RIC were mobilising, intent on carrying out an act of deadly retribution for the earlier assassinations of British intelligence agents by Michael Collins’ “Squad”, which then helped nationalism grow within the GAA, and may have alienated the unionist community from its games.
100 years later, a new club with a cross community approach was set up in the mainly Unionist area of East Belfast, with Irish language enthusiast Linda Ervine from a Unionist background as the club’s first ever president. Linda Ervine took the opportunity with both hands saying, “I think whenever I was asked; I just thought it was an exciting opportunity to encourage something new, something different and I just feel that the people that are involved in the club, they didn’t say we couldn’t or we shouldn’t, we can’t or maybe not now you know their wasn’t hesitancy, it was sort of why not when people are inserted?”
Ervine added, “Why not do it? I just think that’s a good opportunity and I feel if you don’t put your head above the parapet enough, nothing will ever change in Northern Ireland. You know people will not have the chance to get involved in things because they are of a particular tradition, the tradition they come from, they sign up to a particular religion, politics or whatever, I think why should people be limited in that way? Why shouldn’t people get the opportunity to play GAA?” The big question is whether sectarianism still exists in the GAA? A recent twitter poll has shown 42.9% of people think sectarianism no longer exists in the GAA, while 28.6% think sectarianism still exists within the GAA, and another 28.6% thinks maybe.
We are now in 2021 and we are 23 years on from the Good Friday agreement and East Belfast GAA Club is part of a number of projects set up within that time frame to help prevent sectarian tensions.
As with most, the Covid-19 pandemic of early 2020 put a halt to all operations, for this GAA club, it meant Gaelic games could no longer be played.
However, nearly a year later and this club is going strong with teams in every code, showing how social media is powerful even with no games allowed. The president of this new club adds further, “I think these are the sort of things we have to do you know if we want peace, If we want shared communities, then we have to stop putting up barriers or else we have to knock the barriers down and you know I thin sport is a great way for people to come together and I also think the GAA needs to move a bit, there are changes they need to make within their own ranks and I suppose it’s just people’s perception of what the GAA is and what the GAA stands for people outside of the GAA and I suppose people within the GAA”.
This GAA club has been set up at a kitchen table but the interest of people living in East Belfast has sparked this project, perhaps the biggest GAA story during the pandemic. East Belfast GAA Club had a good response from people outside of the area online and when asked if it was a help Linda said, “Absolutely and I think there is a mixture of interest. So there are people who aren’t from East Belfast who have come to live in East Belfast, who have made East Belfast their home, who come from GAA backgrounds, why can’t they play GAA in what is now their area? There is also people from the nationalist community born and brought up in East Belfast but didn’t have a club within their own area and there are also people from the Unionist area of East Belfast and from outside Belfast who want to get involved, who want to try something new, who don’t want to be limited and they want to play”.