By Cahair O’Kane (for Irish News)
Early Sunday afternoon, I took a walk up to a match in the local club.
To walk into the main pitch in Bellaghy, you cross beneath gates bearing the inscription Páirc Sean dé Brún.
It is named after Sean Brown. The 25th anniversary of his murder passed earlier this year.
Sean’s family are unlikely to ever get answers, never mind justice, around his killing.
He was an ordinary club chairman, locking the place up at the end of a meeting in May 1997, taken away and killed by loyalists for no other reason than he was a GAA man.
Gerry Devlin was shot dead in the same year and in very similar circumstances. He had come to the club at St Enda’s in Glengormley, where the family were prominent members, to lift his brother Kevin.
A loyalist gunman shot him dead at the entrance.
The Glengormley club was a repeated target during the Troubles. Liam Canning was 19 when an off-duty UDR solider shot him dead in 1981.
A decade later, loyalists poured petrol through the letterbox of Colin Lundy’s house and burned him and his mother Kathleen to death.
In 1993, club president Sean Fox was tortured to death in his own home at the age of 72.
Back in February 1988, Aidan McAnespie walked through a police checkpoint on his way to a football match in Aughnacloy. He was unarmed and posed no threat.
David Holden was a British soldier on duty. He was manning a machine gun inside a sangar as McAnespie walked past.
Earlier this year, Holden told a court that it had been a “coldish day” and that his hands were wet from cleaning duties. He said the “machine gun caught my webbing which made me lose my grip… the rounds went off and I just stood in shock.”
23-year-old Aidan McAnespie ended up dead, shot in the back.
No verdict has yet been handed down by the court.
The Relatives for Justice group documented every GAA member killed during the troubles. In two years of studying material, they compiled a list of 156 names.
Nothing in the north is ever black and white, least of all when it comes to untangling the complexities of its blood-stained past.
There will always be a longing for those who perpetrated such crimes to face justice, just as there will always be an element that felt all and any means were justified in the face of the uprising of Republicanism.
Protestant people suffered as much as Catholics during the troubles.
But it’s a really frustrating thing to try and look ahead in the north at present.
Jamie Bryson giving the GAA a kicking over the last week ought not to matter. We shouldn’t really care what he says, this failed wannabe politician who gathered up the sum total of 167 votes when he stood for election.
What’s the right thing to do here? To ignore him allows his views to go unchallenged. To challenge his views gives oxygen to them. You can’t win.
Maybe progressive society will never win.
It’s one thing him having a distaste for the GAA. It’s another thing to create tension around the use of playing pitches in east Belfast for Gaelic games.
Traditionally Gaelic Games have been played by nationalists. The demographics of membership will always lean towards the nationalist community because it is rooted in Irishness and the cultures of sport and music that surround it.
In its early days the GAA and the Republican movement were very much interlinked, but by the time the Troubles came around, they operated as very different strands of nationalism rather than through each other.
Even by then the GAA was about games, not politics.
There are plenty of soccer pitches in the north that sit beneath union jacks. Their governing body still plays God Save The Queen before Irish Cup finals, even when they know it’s antagonistic to nationalist-leaning communities involved.
But everyone would recognise that the IFA are trying, and that Ulster Rugby are trying and succeeding. There’s no fear left in Catholics attending games in Ravenhill.
There are still glimpses of the unionist leanings of both bodies but that’s the way it is. You can’t airbrush it all. You just have to learn to live and let live.
To conflate the modern-day GAA with the IRA and a battle for Irish unity is typical of the whataboutery, the pathetic attitude and lack of leadership that exists within political unionism.
It’s easy to see why Sinn Féin is leaving unionist parties, and equally their political rivals in the Republic, for dust.
You couldn’t fail to look progressive when you’re up against the people who campaigned for Brexit, have bemoaned it since yet point-blank refuse to engage in discussions about what will happen if a referendum on Irish unity does pass, leaving history to potentially repeat itself.
In Jamie Bryson, we have a man who publically supports the DUP’s stance on sitting out of government, leaving people struggling in homes across the north because they can’t bear the idea of working with a nationalist first minister.
Worse than weans, yet being allowed to wield such power because of a broken system.
It doesn’t take a big man to go tub-thumping.
It takes a big man to do something about fixing things for the next generation.
The GAA has never been less of a threat to unionism. Protestants are as welcome as the rest of the 600,000 people on the island that identify as non-Irish nationals.
There are young Protestants engaging with the games right across the north.
What is it they engage with? It’s kicking a ball around a field. That’s all it is.
In 25 years in a GAA changing room, I’d say I never heard or was involved in a single political conversation. Not one.
The examples at the top of the page would be enough for the GAA to be an embittered, small-minded, spiteful, unwelcoming organisation if it wanted to.
But it’s not.
Nationalism is naturally attached to its past. The scars are too deep to just stand on the seabed and drop centuries of baggage into the water.
Yet there are serious efforts being made to leave it behind. Hands put out to shake that, rather than reciprocate, unionism seems happier to turn on its heel from and then complain that nothing is changing.
If Jamie Bryson cared to listen back to his own words and public offerings of the last year, are they helping bring the two sides closer together, or are they driving in a wedge that many would be happy to see gone?
Change starts with the man in the mirror.