This week, Jim Wells MLA complained about the Bryansford Ladies GAA collecting money at a supermarket in Newcastle, County Down. Mr Wells is a DUP councillor in the area, and is vocally opposed to public fundraising by members of the local Gaelic Athletic Club. On BBC Radio's Talkback, Mr Wells made clear that Unionists in the area would not be comfortable donating to an organisation with historical links to the Republican movement. He explicitly made reference to a GAA trophy named after IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands.
Representatives from Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party have spoken out against Mr Wells' "churlish and negative" comments, supporting the work done by the GAA in the community. Recently, I went to a panel debate hosted by the Young Unionists entitled " The GAA and the Orange Order are part of the problem in Northern Ireland, not the solution". A deliberately provocative motion, there were a few heated exchanges. Nonetheless, it was an interesting debate.
The GAA, as recognised broadly across the community, is fundamentally a community and sporting organisation. The repeal of GAA Rule 21 permitted members of the British armed forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary, to play Gaelic Games, and rule 1.12 stipulates that the GAA is a specifically anti-sectarian and anti-racist organisation. It has gradually adapted to 21st century Ireland and has severed ties with its Republican past. There remain elements of Irish Nationalism in the sport; the Irish language, National Anthem and tricolour are core facets of this sporting culture. Of course, there is no denying its roots, but the GAA - especially the Ulster Council - has done its part to modernise the organisation. Now it is up to society to see it in that light.
The Orange Order is explicitly pro-biblical Protestantism and its membership is limited to Protestants. Though conflicting with the DUP's leader Ian Paisley for years, the Orange Order has been very much involved in Unionist politics in Northern Ireland. The Orange Order runs a number of charitable ventures and fundraises to this end. Its parades celebrate the Order's civic and religious freedom. Although the Orange Order has been compared to the Ku Klux Klan, it has many virtues - mostly Christian, Unionist and its own sense of community cohesion.
Jim Wells' complaints about community groups fundraising in supermarkets must be viewed as complaints about community-based and community-orientated activities. Two parallel community groups - the GAA and the Orange Order - should be allowed to fundraise where they wish, so fulfilling an invaluable service to their membership. It is important to look at the benefits. The GAA benefits all its members, from whatever background. Jim Wells should bear this in mind when stirring up bad feeling towards what is principally a sports team.
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