HomeFootballJack Anderson: Not yet summer in Northern Ireland but communities are moving...

Jack Anderson: Not yet summer in Northern Ireland but communities are moving slowly


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I lived in Belfast for 15 years. The city is a bit like Cusack Park in Ennis; it always seems smaller than it is. In Belfast, this is because of old sectarian divisions and the Troubles. The peace walls are the most obvious manifestation of the divide. The divide in some people’s heads is now less pronounced, more nuanced, but its foundations remain just as deep. Where you live, your name, your school, even the way you pronounce words or letters can all give subtle signs, as, of course, does the sport you play.

In Belfast, I played hurling. There was nothing overtly political about that. Coming from east Limerick, I didn’t play any other sport. We only played Gaelic football when it was getting dark.

With my club, Bredagh, even though it is in Co Down, we played in the Antrim leagues. We often played against St Enda’s in the north of the city. It was always cold in Glengormley and worse, I often ended up marking a fellow lawyer, Niall Murphy. The rules of evidence don’t apply on the GAA pitch. Niall made you earn it.

During the Troubles, five St Enda club members were killed. The club was burnt down 13 times. In 1997, a club stalwart, Gerry Devlin, was shot dead by a loyalist gunman near the gates of the clubhouse entrance. At the inquest a year later, the RUC officer in charge of the investigation said Mr Devlin “was a fine upstanding man”, who had been “selected because he was a lone Catholic coming to the club. They were waiting for someone to arrive on their own, it was a dastardly attack.” 

That word – selected.

To paraphrase Faulkner, when you go to somewhere like St Enda’s, the past is never dead, it’s playing with you.

Months prior to Gerard Devlin’s death, Sean Brown, the subject of the recent RTÉ documentary Murder of a GAA Chairman was abducted and murdered by a loyalist gang as he locked the gates of his club in Bellaghy. 

At an inquest this year, the coroner said that among the 25 suspects, “several were agents of the state”. The Brown family’s solicitor is Niall Murphy.

The issue of legacy and law arising from the Troubles is far too important and complex for a column such as this. From the outside, many of us from “the South” still think of “the North” in two dimensions. There is much, much more to it. When I started working at Queen’s University, it was the 20th anniversary of the murder of law lecturer and unionist politician Edgar Graham. My PhD supervisor was head of school at that time. Hurt, bewilderment, fear, loss are emotions that cross sectarian divides.

On the GAA during the Troubles, a good place to start is with a book from 2001 by then journalist Des Fahy (How the GAA Survived the Troubles). Fahy is now a barrister and was counsel for the Brown family at their recent inquest. He was a member of Bredagh when I was in Belfast – as I said, Belfast is small. While I focused on hurling, he coached the foreign sport – Gaelic football. I think he even used to call a hurley a “stick”, a Tyrone thing.

One of my hurling teammates who lived in East Belfast, used to bring his “sticks” to training in a hockey bag so as not to attract the attention of neighbours. There is now a thriving GAA club in East Belfast. My kids play hockey and cricket here in Australia. Would they have done so in Belfast? Would I have let them?

As for Des Fahy, he recently represented families of nine of the Stardust dead. As with many inquests into the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Stardust inquest showed that trauma can be intergenerational: only on the uttering of the phrase “unlawful killing” can familial healing begin.

Belfast, despite or maybe even because of Brexit, is now bustling. It remains small, of course. Watching the TV series Blue Lights (set in Belfast and well worth a look) I get distracted by memories of a familiar street (or an even more familiar pub) in the background.

One storyline is about a rookie police officer who plays camogie. She worries about her safety and what her teammates will think of her joining the PSNI. Eventually, she tells them. They gather in a Celtic huddle at training and are supportive – “och, sure we knew that.” Despite this, she stops playing.

In March, on the 20th European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, Peadar Heffron, a former GAA playing member of the PSNI, was asked, knowing what he knows now, would he have joined the police. Heffron’s car was blown up by dissidents on his way to work in 2010. His leg was amputated, and he suffered other serious injuries. Heffron’s reply was a stark “no”. 

He went on to say, “it’s not within the police’s grasp to change enough, it’s people within communities that have to move a bit.” 

Communities are moving, slowly. In Murder of a GAA Chairman, there is an account of Sean Brown welcoming Seamus Heaney, a native of Bellaghy, to the club. At the height of the Troubles in the early 1970s, Heaney said “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.” Fifty years later, it may not yet be summer in Northern Ireland, but the dark days are largely gone.

In many ways, the slow, contested development of Casement Park in west Belfast symbolises what is going on now in the North at the moment: home of Antrim GAA since the 1950s, a harrowing place in that miserable macabre month of March 1988 and, possibly, 40 years later a host stadium for Northern Ireland at Euro 2028.

And maybe in one part of the redevelopment, there might be room for two pillars to hang an unlocked gate – a memorial to symbolise those whom the GAA lost, and that Casement Park is open to all, always.

Jack Anderson is a Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne

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