The decision of a leading GAA figure to publicly endorse a Sinn Fein general election candidate in South Down was “unwise and unhelpful,” Jim Wells has said.
DUP MLA Mr Wells was commenting after former Down all-Ireland winning manager Peter McGrath appeared in an online video backing Chris Hazzard.
In the 35-second clip, Mr McGrath identifies himself as a former Down manager and the current manager of Fermanagh, but doesn’t make it clear he is not speaking on behalf of the GAA.
Mr McGrath goes on to say: “I would like to endorse Chris Hazzard as my preference for the parliamentary seat in South Down because of his identity with the community, with our culture - particularly with Gaelic games – and with the party that he represents that is trying so hard for equality, integrity, space for everyone in our society and he’ll be getting my vote on June 8.”
Mr Wells said the video had “caused a lot of concern” among people in South Down at a time when the GAA is “trying to attract a wider spectrum of support”.
He said: “This is not particularly helpful. I don’t think it was wise at all for him to identify himself as a Sinn Fein supporter – and I don’t think what he was saying was accurate either, talking about ‘the party of equality.’ This is a party that certainly hasn’t done much in recent weeks to respect the unionist point of view.”
The DUP assemblyman added: “The attendance [of Sinn Fein figures] at the Loughgall and Coalisland [IRA commemoration] services frankly angered a lot of people in South Down and wasn’t reaching out to the unionist community in any shape or form.”
Along with the video clip on Facebook, Chris Hazzard posted the message: “As a young gael growing up in Drumaness I absolutely adored the 90s Down team – so it is a huge honour that the man behind that historic success is backing my campaign to make history on June 8th!”
PR consultant and former GAA club chairman Tom Kelly posted a message on Facebook branding the video “propaganda”.
Mr Kelly said: “His political views are his own business, but by participating in campaign propaganda whilst holding a very public position in the Association does no service to the GAA and its tradition of staying above party politics.”
The UUP candidate for South Down, Harold McKee, said the endorsement was more likely to anger SDLP supporters within the GAA than members of the unionist community.
“I don’t think it will have any bearing on the unionists at all, but if I was SDLP I wouldn’t be happy,” he said.
Former GAA president and current Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly told BBC Talkback: “As an organisation you shouldn’t be endorsing any one party over another, but that doesn’t preclude individuals from doing what they want to do in their own private lives.
A spokesman for the Ulster branch of the GAA said: “The GAA is by rule and policy a non-party political organisation and the individual political views of its members are a matter for themselves.”