GAA president nominee Jarlath Burns retreats from ‘take down the flag’ comment

A video screengrab from the Jarlath Burns interview with the Joe.ie podcast
A video screengrab from the Jarlath Burns interview with the Joe.ie podcast
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A potential future president of the GAA has distanced himself from previous remarks he made about removing the Irish flag and anthem to make the sports more attractive to unionists.

South Armagh school principal Jarlath Burns provoked a fierce backlash in 2015 when he said it wouldn’t “cost him a thought” to have the trappings removed if he genuinely believed it would help build bridges between the two communities.

The former Armagh senior football captain has been nominated for the role of president and in a series of interviews has said his previous comments around the flag and emblem have been “totally misrepresented”.

In one interview Mr Burns said he was “very proud of how the GAA uses our anthem and flag,” and in another he said: “There’s no time I feel more in touch with who I am as an Irish person than when I stand and face the flag for my anthem.”

However, he is also known as a strategic thinker with a self-proclaimed “obsession with unionism,” who has engaged positively with the Orange Order on a number of occasions, and was a member of the Eames-Bradley group behind the controversial report on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

Quoted in the Irish News on Tuesday, Mr Burns said: “A Jarlath Burns presidency would never have any motion to congress to change the important position of the flag and the anthem. What I said was totally misrepresented. When I played for Armagh, before the ball was thrown in, it was always a very special moment to stand for the anthem of my country.”

We can never talk down the fears of the unionist people and what they suffered down through the years

Jarlath Burns

In a more in-depth interview for a Joe.ie podcast, the former GAA rules committee chairman spoke of the “counter-productive” nature of the IRA campaign of violence and how the murder of Protestants made the prospect of a united Ireland more remote – particularly the Kingsmills and Tullyvallen massacres within a mile of his school.

“That really bites deep into the heart of the very small Protestant community in south Armagh,” he said.

Mr Burns said his own view of the IRA’s campaign was reflected in a conversation with a Silverbridge GAA club stalwart back in the early 1980s.

Recalling the conversation, Mr Burns said: “He said the problem is that republicans think that they are fighting England, Britain, but they’re not – they’re fighting their neighbours, they are fighting the Protestants, and when it’s all over, they will realise that if you shoot an RUC man dead, you alienate his immediate family and all of his loved ones against the idea of what you want, which is a united Ireland.

“Now you are left with a unionism that is very easily hurt.”

He went on to say: “I do have an obsession with unionism. I read so much about the Orange Order and so much about unionism and try to understand it as much as I can.

“You have to understand unionist fears. We can never talk down the fears of the unionist people and what the unionist people suffered down through the years.

“To do that, and to minimise that experience that they had, fighting to remain British in the north of Ireland, has to be acknowledged and understood, and worked with if we are ever going to have a shared future.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Burns also reveals he is a darts fan who finds it “offensive” and “embarrassing” when Coleraine darts player Daryl Gurney gets jeered when playing in Dublin, and how any cameras erected on the border in south Armagh post-Brexit “won’t last a night,” before they are pulled down.

If successful, Mr Burns will serve as GAA president from 2021-2014.