Top GAA man withdraws application to pro-Union club, claiming it was a joke

The Ulster Reform Club in central Belfast
The Ulster Reform Club in central Belfast

A senior GAA figure applied to join the Province’s oldest unionist private members’ club — but has withdrawn his application after being asked about it by the News Letter.

Ryan Feeney, the Ulster GAA Council’s head of public affairs and a member of the Policing Board, lodged an application with the Ulster Reform Club on Belfast’s Royal Avenue.

Ryan Feeney

Ryan Feeney

The grand 130-year-old institution describes itself as “the most prestigious business, social and dining club in Northern Ireland”.

When this newspaper asked Mr Feeney yesterday morning if he had applied to be a member, he said: “No I haven’t” and claimed it was a practical joke. But hours later, after the man who proposed him for membership said that was incorrect, Mr Feeney withdrew his application.

When first contacted yesterday, Mr Feeney said that his friend Conor McGinn, an Ulster-born Labour adviser to shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker, and a club member, had put forward his name “for a bit of craic”, adding: “I’ve no interest in being a member. He did it for a bit of fun.”

The club’s constitution is explicitly pro-Union but it has some members who would not regard themselves as unionist.

He said that he had nothing against the club but added: “It just wouldn’t be my cup of would be a bit too regal for me.”

However, when we contacted Mr McGinn he made clear that the application was not a joke and was serious. After being asked why he had nominated Mr Feeney, he said: “What about it?”

Under the club rules, Mr Feeney would have to have signed a form to say that he is “in sympathy with the fundamental objects of the club and the principles of its constitution”.

The first point in the Reform Club’s constitution and rules states that the “fundamental objectives and principles” of the club mean that members “support the maintenance of the existing union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

By contrast, the GAA’s constitution states: “Since she has not control over all the national territory, Ireland’s claim to nationhood is impaired” and commits members to working on a 32-county basis.

Mr McGinn was annoyed that questions were being asked about the issue and suggested there might be sectarianism involved.

When it was put to him that Mr Feeney is a member of the GAA, he asked whether the News Letter was raising the issue because Mr Feeney was a Catholic.

Then, asked about the fact that the GAA is explicitly nationalist and the Reform Club has a pro-Union constitution, Mr McGinn said: “I don’t think the club makes its decisions about who should and shouldn’t be a member based on those assumptions.

“Obviously the News Letter does, but not the Ulster Reform Club.”

The Labour Party adviser said he believed it was “factually inaccurate” to say that the club of which he is a member had a pro-Union commitment in its constitution and added: “I don’t think that that particular rule is on the statute books any more. I think it was and obviously those are the traditions of the club but I don’t really see how this is a story, to be honest with you”.

He said that that club was not “in any way explicitly political” and was primarily a social institution with an emphasis on sport.

When asked whether his decision to put forward Mr Feeney for membership was a practical joke or he was serious about it he said: “Yea, I nominate quite a few different people from across a whole range of backgrounds for membership and Ryan is one of them.

“To my mind, he has shown leadership and been dedicated to community engagement and trying to bring people in Northern Ireland together through sport and I think that’s incredibly admirable.”

A short time later, Mr Feeney phoned the News Letter to say that he had withdrawn his application form.

He said: “This was something that just wasn’t thought out. It wasn’t something that I deliberately did — it just went ahead by Conor and other guys. It’s not something that I walked into myself.”

He later sent a statement to clarify his position.

In it, he stated that he had attended the Reform Club on several occasions and is “committed to breaking down longstanding barriers between our communities across all facets of life within our society”.

He added: “It was in this context that my name was put forward for membership of the Reform Club. At this time due to many other commitments I am unable to take this up, but it is something that I would not rule out in the future.”

Bridge-builder has won praise for his cross-community sporting work

Ryan Feeney has won plaudits for his cross-community work which has included attempts to build links with the football and rugby authorities.

Three years ago the former teacher was appointed to the Policing Board as an independent member.

At the time, he made clear that he was taking the role in a personal capacity but that he had support from senior members of the GAA.

Mr Feeney, who has been employed full-time by the sporting body since 2006, as Head of Community Development, Strategy and Public Affairs, said that he applied for the post after dissident republicans murdered fellow GAA member Ronan Kerr.

He was also among the senior GAA figures to welcome former Presbyterian Moderator Norman Hamilton to the GAA’s Ulster conference in 2011.

Last night one Reform Club member, who asked not to be named, said that he had never heard of the club being used for a practical joke.

He said: “If it was an organisation that I wasn’t in sympathy with, I wouldn’t join and it wouldn’t occur to me to see that as being in any way funny so his actions here seem a bit odd.”