Respect is the key to progress, Northern Ireland’s First Minister said last night in a speech celebrating the role of the GAA in peace building.
In a speech at the Co-operation Ireland gala dinner at Queen’s University, Peter Robinson praised the body for taking “significant decisions” in helping shape the changing Northern Ireland.
However he also warned that “it is also wrong to honour and extol” those who participated in terrorism both now and in the past.
There had been a long history of friction between the DUP and the GAA. Leading party members Edwin Poots, Nelson McCausland and Gregory Campbell, when sitting as culture ministers, all challenged the GAA on having grounds, competitions and cups openly named after republican terrorists.
Last night Mr Robinson both challenged the celebration of terrorism of all hues and reached out the hand of friendship.
“What I want to see is a society where there is respect for the constitutional reality but also for constitutional aspirations,” he said.
“Respect for another person’s culture and also for their right to live in peace. Respect for the lawful authority of the state and for the individuals within it.”
The DUP leader was guest speaker at the dinner in Belfast which was organised to acknowledge the sports association’s efforts to forge better community relations.
His attendance, which he admitted would have been unimaginable a few years ago, 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. Last year Mr Robinson notably joined Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at the McKenna Cup final in Armagh.
Sinn Fein Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has also watched a Northern Ireland international football match at Windsor Park in Belfast.
Last Friday Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness sat side by side to watch Ulster Rugby defeat Leicester Tigers in their Heineken Cup clash at Ravenhill in Belfast.
In a possible reference to the dissident republican murder of a man in north Belfast last week and the shooting of a 24-year-old woman by loyalist paramilitaries in east Belfast, Mr Robinson said he had no hesitation in condemning such actions.
“An a la carte approach to the rule of law is not a basis for building the kind of peaceful democratic society that we all want to have,” he said.
“I make no distinction whatsoever between shootings by the UVF and shootings by dissident republicans and I have no reservation, mental or otherwise, in condemning all such activity.”
He also singled out glorification of terrorism of the past for condemnation, something that parts of the GAA have been strongly criticised for engaging in.
“Nor do I make any distinction between terrorism now and terrorism in the past,” he said. “It was and is all wrong. Cherry-picking on these matters is not credible.
“It is also wrong to honour and extol those who participated in such activities.
“What is required is that each one of us should be as mindful of our responsibilities as we are of our rights. As Scripture tells us all things are lawful, but all things are not expedient.”
The First Minister also said: “For its part, the GAA has taken significant decisions that have not only reflected the changing times we live in but more importantly have helped shape them.
“Historically, from the trenches many within each section of our community have viewed with suspicion the groups, organisations and institutions connected to those from a different background.
“Even today it is fair to say that in some districts relations remain fraught – misgivings and distrust exist. But I’m glad that this is receding. By speaking here tonight I want to encourage those in the GAA who have been making the case for change and are reaching out to those beyond their natural constituency.
“I do so, not from the comfort of an armchair but knowing just how difficult this can be.
“In a country so steeped in religion too many skip over Christ’s exhortation, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”
He said it was “a welcome and important development” when, 12 years ago, the GAA dropped its historic ban on members of the security forces playing gaelic games. “That change took place at a time when such initiatives from any quarter were rare – and it was a harbinger of things to come. It was followed just one year later in 2002 by a team from the PSNI pitching itself against St Bridget’s GAA. I seem to recall that St Bridget’s won, but the real victory was in the game taking place.”
Secretary of the GAA’s Ulster Council Danny Murphy said the presence of the DUP leader was a ‘significant step’ on the way to improving community relations. He said: “While it is not an intrinsic GAA event, 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.”