An Phoblacht 2 - 2022 small

16 September 2004 Edition

Resize: A A A Print

Should the GAA endorse the Long Kesh stadium plan?

A blanket man in the H-Blocks risking a beating and solitary confinement in order to smuggle GAA results to news-starved comrades is just one story told in that fine book by Tom Humphries, Green Fields: Gaelic Sport in Ireland‚ (1996).

Other chapters touch on the 1971 removal of the ban on members playing foreign games (mainly soccer) and on Rule 21 (since deleted), which barred members of the state forces in the North from playing and which was one pretext for the loyalist assassination campaign against the GAA and the incendiary campaign against the organisation's property. Currently, the GAA has yet to make up its mind in amending Rule 42 in relation to the playing of soccer and rugby in the refurbished Croke Park stadium.

The British state in Ireland traditionally and simplistically viewed the GAA as the sporting wing of militant nationalism and thus as a subversive organisation whereas Irish people viewed it and its games as a legitimate expression of their culture.

However, because of its roots the GAA never quite managed to become merely a sporting organisation. Every club is named for a place, a saint, a republican martyr or a GAA martyr. Hogan Stand is named after Tipperary player Mick Hogan, shot dead by the Black and Tans in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, 21 November 1920.

Throughout the conflict in the North the British army occupied GAA grounds in Belfast and Crossmaglen and, of course, a large number of political prisoners were members of the GAA.

The goalposts of his local GAA club frame the little white monument dedicated to the memory of Aidan McAnespie, shot in the back by a British soldier at Aughnacloy in 1988 as he walked to a match. Seán Brown was the last member of the GAA to be assassinated. The chair of Bellaghy GAA, he was kidnapped and murdered by loyalists after he locked up the Wolfe Tone Club after a meeting in 1997.

All of the above is a preamble (but highly relevant) to what I really want to speak about.

Last Wednesday the Belfast Telegraph‚ interviewed Danny Murphy, Ulster Council Secretary of the GAA. He was asked about the British government's plans for a £55m multi-sport stadium in the North. A feasibility study backed the idea of a stadium but stated that it could only be viable and desirable if it was principally supported and used by the GAA, the rugby and soccer bodies, among others.

Danny Murphy confirmed that the GAA would be prepared to host games at the venue. He said that he believed that sport had a significant role to play in building a better and peaceful future for everyone.

"In the event of the stadium being built, it has the potential to signpost that sport is a vehicle for reconciliation, respect and inclusiveness in society. The GAA would wish to play its part in any such development."

His comments were interpreted as a major boost for government and sports campaigners which, of course they were.

And this is where the problem arises. There are twelve possible sites for the stadium, including the Titanic Quarter - the former Harland and Wolff shipyard in East Belfast. But it is Long Kesh (the Maze, to the authorities) that is the location most favoured by the British government and the main unionist parties. It is a vast area of hundreds of acres: a former airport and headquarters of the RAF before it was converted into an internment camp in 1971 with the H-Blocks added in 1975. It is well away from the traffic congestion of Belfast and is easily accessible from the M1.

Mainstream unionists want the site of the former prison levelled, its memories buried because their perception is that the history of Long Kesh is a narrative of republican resistance. A story of beatings, gassings, raids on internment huts; tunnelling, escapes, the shooting of prisoners; and in the H-Blocks, the blanket protest, the hunger strikes.

Over the past three years there has been a debate over what to do with the former prison. The offices of the First and Deputy First Ministers established the Maze Consultation Panel and took recommendations including detailed proposals from the ex-prisoners group, Coiste na n-Iarchimí.

Coiste argued that part of Long Kesh (including the prison hospital where the hunger strikers died) should be preserved and that a museum and conflict resolution campus/educational centre should be built. The site could be a place of reflection and learning for students of all ages who have an interest in conflict resolution, prison history and its importance for political developments on the island. There could also be a peace park dedicated to all who have suffered during the conflict, including a memorial to prison officers who lost their lives.

The biggest opposition to such a project comes, as I said, from the unionists, while Tony Blair is known to strongly favour Long Kesh as the site for the new stadium. And this is where the GAA has to be careful, has to give a lot of consideration to what it does next.

Danny Murphy has already presented what appears to be a fait accompli, which is that the GAA endorses the idea of a multi-sport stadium, even though this is bound to have an adverse effect on the prospects and status of the refurbished Casement Park. (One wonders about the process of consultation in the Ulster Council?) That aside, the GAA should not endorse such a stadium being located just anywhere, particularly on an obliterated Long Kesh. There can be compromise; the camp area is huge so part of the prison could be preserved - but the GAA in being tempted into the fray cannot and should not forget its own roots, its history, or the heavy price that its members in the North paid to keep the spirit of the organisation alive. It should not forget it has a duty to the sensibilities of the nationalist community.

For, in the words of Lisburn Sinn Féin Councillor and former blanket man, Paul Butler, "no GAA player would play on the rubble of the H-Blocks and in particular the hospital wing where ten republicans died on hunger strike".

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1