HomeFootballGAA and SDLP roles brought ‘heightened scrutiny’: Justin McNulty

GAA and SDLP roles brought ‘heightened scrutiny’: Justin McNulty


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Justin McNulty has acknowledged that his role as an inter-county manager, coupled with his political commitments, has brought a ‘heightened scrutiny’ upon him.

The SDLP MLA and former Armagh defender returned for a second spell in charge of the Laois footballers last October, a decade after previously holding that position.

It has been a productive second coming so far with Laois winning the Division Four league title before subsequently qualifying for this Saturday’s Tailteann Cup final against Down.

But McNulty’s GAA role has caused friction for him within his party and matters came to a head on that front in February.

The Newry and Armagh MLA left the first sitting of the new Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont early to attend, by helicopter, a Saturday evening National League game in Wexford.

He was subsequently suspended by the party with a warning from party leader Colum Eastwood that ‘the two positions aren’t compatible’ though he remains an SDLP representative.

“It was a unique situation, it was a Saturday evening sitting of the Assembly which was just bizarre and I had to be in two places at the one time and the only way to make it work was to do what I had to do,” said McNulty.

Asked if he was surprised by the headlines it created and the response, McNulty nodded.

“It surprised me the level of interest in that dynamic,” he said. “It was intriguing and fascinating in many ways.”

McNulty said his current situation is that ‘I have a Tailteann Cup final on Saturday and my laser focus is there, to help our team be the best it can be’.

He offered a little more on the subject when it was put to him that there is an increased focus on him because of the two positions he’s balancing.

“I guess there is that heightened scrutiny,” he said, revealing that he spoke at length to the late John O’Mahony, a former TD and inter-county manager, about the situation. “It’s a balancing act but life is a balancing act for everybody and you do the best with what you have. That’s all you can do.”

Contractors with excavators have begun clearing the concrete seating terraces at GAA stadium in Belfast ahead of the long-delayed redevelopment of the stadium
Contractors with excavators have begun clearing the concrete seating terraces at GAA stadium in Belfast ahead of the long-delayed redevelopment of the stadium (Liam McBurney/PA)

Politics and the GAA combined again for McNulty last week when he wrote a letter to UEFA head Aleksander Ceferin, pleading with UEFA ‘to demonstrate as much flexibility as possible in facilitating the reconstruction’ of Casement Park in time to host Euro 2028 games.

GAA President Jarlath Burns recently suggested that the venue might not be rebuilt in time. New UK prime minister Keir Starmer visited Stormont earlier this week.

“I was hoping with Keir Starmer in Belfast that the announcement would come then but I don’t know what they are waiting (on),” said McNulty. “It is, as it has been described, in extra-time now for Casement to be ready for the Euros in 2028.”

McNulty was more optimistic than Burns, saying the ‘soundings I think are positive and I’m hopeful a positive announcement will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead’.

On the passing of former All-Ireland winning Galway manager O’Mahony, McNulty paid tribute to a close friend.

“What a man, what a leader of people,” said McNulty. “It’s a huge loss for us all.”

Down manager Conor Laverty and Laois manager Justin McNulty hold the Tailteann Cup between them at Croke Park
Down manager Conor Laverty, left, and Laois manager Justin McNulty during a Tailteann Cup media day at Croke Park. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile (Harry Murphy / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

McNulty can become an All-Ireland winning manager of sorts himself if he leads Laois to victory on Saturday. Despite the golden ticket of a place in next year’s All-Ireland SFC for the winner, he says that doesn’t motivate him.

“No, it doesn’t,” he insisted. “We haven’t discussed that. It’s not in our psyche. It’s not there. I’m saying it again, we’re focused entirely on our performance. Nothing else matters. There’s nothing else we can control.”

McNulty did agree that his return to the Laois role, to replace Billy Sheehan, came out of left field.

“It was a bolt out of the blue, a total bolt out of the blue,” he said. “But I’m delighted that it happened. I guess I’ve missed that dressing-room environment. I love being in a dressing-room with footballers, I love being on the pitch coaching. Gaelic football is something I’m passionate about. Beyond friends and family, nothing defines me more than Gaelic football.”

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