A leading campaigner against sectarianism has defended the secretary of state following claims he “snubbed” the Irish national anthem at a GAA match.
James Brokenshire became the first secretary of state to attend a gaelic football match in Northern Ireland, when he watched the Dr McKenna Cup final in Newry on Saturday evening.
Mr Brokenshire attended the game at the invitation of the Ulster council of the GAA.
But he has come in for some criticism after it emerged he only took his seat once the national anthem had finished.
Speaking on BBC’s Good Morning Ulster show, Labour MP Conor McGinn – who is originally from Co Armagh – said: “I think that’s quite a regressive step. I’m confused and bemused by it and I’ve asked him to clarify why he did it.”
Meanwhile, campaign group Relatives for Justice has voiced concern about Mr Brokenshire’s presence at the game, stating: “Until the British government stops insulting the relatives of those they killed and begins a process of addressing the legacy of their involvement in the conflict then there should be no civic spaces of welcome for them – especially at GAA games.”
But prominent solicitor and former Ireland rugby international Trevor Ringland, who has also been a noted activist for reconciliation, told the News Letter: “I don’t think the people who invited Mr Brokenshire were offended and I think they understood the position he was in.
“If people try to make a negative out of something that was seen as constructive, then that is wrong.
“Gestures like this by the GAA and Mr Brokenshire are important if we are to promote inclusion in sport in the future.”
Meanwhile, a former RUC officer has said the criticism of Mr Brokenshire reminded him of an incident which took place close to the border over 45 years ago.
The man, who did not wish to be named, told the News Letter: “I was on foot patrol with a colleague in Crossmaglen one night in 1971 and there was a dance on in a local hall. At the end of the night we were approached by a man who asked us to step outside.
“The next thing the Irish national anthem was played. When it ended, the man came back and said he had asked us to step outside because he didn’t want to embarrass us.
“He then invited us back in and we had tea and buns with the band. It was very respectful and I can’t imagine that would happen nowadays, which is sad.”
A spokesperson for the NIO said Saturday’s game “was about sport not politics” and added that Mr Brokenshire had attended “in the spirit of friendship”.
In 2012, then first minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson also attended the Dr McKenna Cup final, his first GAA match. Mr Robinson also took his seat just before the game began after the anthem was played.
Former Sinn Fein culture minister Caral Ní Chuilín also avoided the playing of God Save the Queen at a Northern Ireland game at Windsor Park.