How far can Peter Robinson take his love-in with the GAA and Nationalists?

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Former Derry star and television pundit Joe Brolly

Former Derry star and television pundit Joe Brolly


I was asked by a follower on Twitter if I know if  DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson wrote or believes the words he spoke at the Queen’s University event about the contribution the GAA has made to the Peace Process in Northern Ireland?

It is a fair question. I recall vividly how Mr Robinson took former Sinn Féin Education Minister Caitríona Ruane to task for using the term ‘parish’ in one of her documents.

The parish has been the hub of the GAA community for decades. So, if the First Minister showed his contempt for the notion of the ‘parish’ (a catholic, nationalist centric reality) back then, why is Mr Robinson now lauding aspects of the GAA?

Responsibility changes people. Peter Robinson knows some GAA people through being First Minister. He genuinely shared in the grief of the Harte family in Tyrone when tragedy struck that home. He witnessed the togetherness, community bonds and parish structures during the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr, a catholic killed by dissident Republicans.

So I suggest Mr Robinson has come to appreciate the GAA in a qualified way in the sense too that it shelters a lot of young people from idleness, mischief and from the grips of paramilitaries. Like so many of us he has travelled in his head.

Presume the First Minister’s utterances are without foundation or genuine affection for the GAA – the fact is, Peter Robinson spoke those warm words about the GAA. He took ownership of those sentiments.

Could you imagine Gregory Campbell, Mervy Storey, Jeffrey Donaldson, Jim Wells, Nelson McCausland, David Simpson or Nigel Dodds,  Robinson’s deputy leader delivering a parallel speech about the GAA? This observation I guess puts in context the significance attaching to Peter Robinson’s generous remarks about the GAA and the risk he is running.

Do you think had Mr Robinson canvassed opinion on such comments in his Assembly/Westminster groups ahead of delivering his speech he would have taken this risk?

He buckled in the face of a sustained anti Maze Long Kesh Peace Centre campaign. He has moderated his tone in his latest comments directed at the Catholic Nationalist community. He is seeking to mend fences with Martin McGuinness in the wake of his Maze Long Kesh Peace Centre U turn. He recognises a crisis when he sees it.

I have spotted little or no praise on Facebook or Twitter from within the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist constituency for Mr Robinson’s acknowledgement of the strengths of the GAA.Does anyone believe Peter Robinson is galvanising support among his elected colleagues and huge swathes of his electorate in telling guests at Castlereagh Borough Council’s Mayoral Installation Dinner of Cllr David Drysdale:

“Unionism has historically had a siege mentality. When we were being besieged it was the right response but when we are in a constitutionally safe and stable position it poses a threat to our future development.”

Do those fellow Assembly and DUP public representatives sharing a platform and clapping spokespersons in the Loyalist Twaddell Avenue protest admire Mr Robinson for this charge  “I fear the real danger for Unionism lies not in what our opponents would seek to do to us but in what we do to ourselves.”


First Minister Peter Robinson

First Minister Peter Robinson


Does anyone believe those who were party to recent street protests are going to take kindly to this statement from Mr Robinson  “the violence was not only wrong but politically self defeating?”

Leading DUP elected representatives defied Mr Robinson’s appeals to stay away from flag protests, which were turning ugly. They snubbed his requests particularly in East and North Belfast.

All of the above stated puts in context how far ahead of many of his elected colleagues Peter Robinson actually is. Do I think the First Minister is more secure in his position as party leader as a result of his bold utterances in recent days? No. If he continues in this vein what will be his fate?

Unionist history is not on the side of liberal leaning party leaders. If we take Mr Robinson’s latest gestures towards the GAA at face value, why should he escape the wrath of right wing Unionism more than those previous leaders who were driven from office for such tendencies?

All of the above is predicated on Peter Robinson believing what he says. Many in the Catholic Nationalist community will be somewhat sceptical against the backcloth of Mr Robinson’s behaviour in the past year culminating in his Maze Long Kesh Peace Centre U turn. As of now the First Minister should be accepted at face value. Will he translate these noble sentiments into actions?

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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Do I believe PR means what he said on these two recent occasions?
    Undoubtedly. Why else would he risk political hari kiri at the hands of ‘his own’ people?
    We can expect unionists, mostly the product of the old extreme DUP who came to prominence only by their no no, never never, attitudes which managed to scupper more moderates like Terence O’Neill, Brian Faulkner, Chichester-Clark, and even the reluctant moderate Trimble, to mount separate campaigns to either silence Robinson or to oust him.
    The fact that out-extreming the extreme has to date been a successful tactic does not fill one with optimism for a DUP leader thinking of co-operating with the ‘other side’ for the future stability of politics here.
    Sorry if I sound depressing, but years of experience who that whoever bangs the biggest Lambeg drum will survive. But at least PR may leave a legacy of a man who at least tried and ended in glorious/ignominious failure.

    • I think it is the journey that PR is on that is important, not the destination. Unionism is transforming before our eyes – has been slowly over the past 20 years. To me one part of it seems to be aligning with more liberal trends. The same may, or is, happening in the nationalism/republicanism area. When conservatism and liberalism intertwined through the 20th century, politics in the North (and South) seemed relatively frozen until the GFA in comparison to the UK. Peace since the GFA has accelerated this process. Anyone, including PR, who tries to get out of the ideological sectarian self-reinforcing box fails politically or certainly has the heat piled on them. But the process of realignment is certainly warming up. Change of mindsets is happening. History does not stand still. Even for PR or MmcG… or anyone.

  2. Cricket was as much a parish game as both Hurley and Gaelic football are in GAA, while there may still be a parish culture in both sports the parochial nature is a mere convenience in both. Certainly I would recognise both the GAA and the Loyal orders as having important parts in both British and Irish history, I would be of the opinion that without King Billy’s sanctuary to the Hugenots from King Charles own sectarian Penal Laws in France you would never have had the likes of Wolf Tone and Protestant led Irish Republicanism who opposed the sectarianism against both Catholics and Protestants masquerading as a divided loyalism for each society, a key reason for the Orange being in the Republic’s flag. The GAA itself was founded in part by Irish Protestants but the parochial convenience and fear of Protestants driven by Catholic insecurity did not help matters. I suppose maybe one day we could make note of an Orangeman feeling free to play Gaelic games, and the GAA accepting of such, as we have seen with British police officers and British Army members playing GAA in its Post Rule 42 era.

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