First Minister Peter Robinson is set to be guest speaker at a gala event to celebrate the role of the GAA in peace building.
The DUP leader is scheduled to address guests at tonight’s Co-operation Ireland dinner at Queen’s University in Belfast, organised to acknowledge the association’s efforts to forge better community relations.
Mr Robinson’s attendance will be seen as the latest in a line of symbolic gestures by ministers within the DUP/Sinn Fein-led power-sharing Executive aimed at showing respect for each other’s sporting traditions.
Secretary of the GAA’s
Ulster Council Danny Murphy said the presence of the DUP leader at the dinner was another “significant step” on the way to improving community relations.
He said: “I think the fact that over the last five years that a number of ministers have attended various events of the GAA, including matches, and the fact the First Minister is attending tomorrow night (Thursday) and will be speaking at the event – while it is not an intrinsic GAA, it is a GAA event organised by Co-operation Ireland – I think in those terms it is another significant step along the road of improving relationships right across the whole sector.”
When sitting as culture ministers, Edwin Poots, Nelson McCausland and Gregory Campbell of the DUP all challenged the GAA on its grounds and competitions openly named after republican terrorists. Observers will look on with interest to see what reference, if any, the First Minister will make about the issues in his speech.
A DUP spokesman said last night: “Peter Robinson has set out his vision for building a shared society on many occasions and will do so again as the keynote speaker at the Co-operation Ireland dinner on Thursday evening.
“Whilst some will concentrate on the divisions between unionists and those involved in the GAA, we trust this speech will promote a better understanding of our position and the challenges which lie ahead of everyone.”
DUP members have attended a number of GAA matches in recent years – with Mr Robinson notably joining Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at last year’s McKenna Cup Final in Armagh – while Sinn Fein Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has watched a Northern Ireland international football match at Windsor Park in Belfast.
Last Friday Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness sat side by side to see Ulster Rugby defeat Leicester Tigers.
GAA chief executive Paraic Duffy and Ulster Council President Martin McAviney will be among notable guests at the dinner. Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers is also on the invite list. Riverdance star Michael Flatley is set to perform.
Mr Murphy highlighted a range of projects the GAA was involved in, including the Live to Play road safety initiative, suicide awareness campaigns and the Interface Games and Game of Three Halves sporting programmes in conjunction with soccer and rugby bodies.
“The primary function (of the dinner) is to focus on the work the GAA is doing and the engagement we are involved in and the wider community development function that we perform as an organisation,” he added.
The Co-operation Ireland event is essentially the second half of its celebration of the GAA’s efforts, having staged another gala dinner at Trinity College Dublin earlier this year.
Chief Executive of Co-operation Ireland Peter Sheridan welcomed the First Minister’s attendance: “We can enrich each other with our different traditions rather than intolerant co-existence, so in that regard we are delighted that the First Minister has agreed to be there and is going to speak.”
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein national chairperson Declan Kearney gave an address at St Andrews University in Scotland yesterday where he lambasted unionist leaders for their “negative” leadership.
He said: “The current stasis in the North has been driven by a negative unionism.
“Instead of embracing the process of transformation and giving courageous leadership unionist leaders have acquiesced to extremists and rejectionists.
“Unionist politicians and paramilitaries are now vying with each other in a sectarian race to the bottom for votes and turf before next year’s election.
“The question arises whether, faced with three years of successive elections, unionism can break from that cycle, or is it now locked into a long-term mode of negative politics.”
Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie also attended.