One of the most obvious (and clearly sectarian) proxy battles that unionism fights against nationalism concerns the GAA. The GAA is enormously popular amongst cultural Catholics, and thus by extension amongst nationalists. GAA clubs are often the centres of social life in rural and small town life for cultural Catholics. Because of this, and because the GAA is a proudly Irish organisation, extreme unionists constantly criticise, demean, belittle and try to hinder the GAA – but entirely without success. The GAA for its part insists that it is an apolitical sporting organisation.
The GAA represents the Irish cultural community at play – nothing more and nothing less.
So it is both puzzling and disappointing to see the UUP joining in the petty criticisms of the GAA that are more normally the stock-in-trade of the DUP and its Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott (and UUP candidate for the UCUNF ticket next year) says that there should be 'more equality and balance when it comes to the distribution of funding to GAA and soccer clubs across Northern Ireland'. He goes on to quote the amounts of money that they two sports receive from the public purse: "since 2004 the Ulster Council of the GAA and GAA clubs have received £19,911,475. By comparison, the Irish Football Association and soccer clubs have received £17,150,044", but he fails to state either how many clubs there are, or even how many players.
Worse though, than his economy with the facts, is his parroting of DUP-style prejudice against the GAA:
"GAA is an organisation which has a strong Irish nationalist ethos and attracts very few players from outside the Roman Catholic community."
"Along with this we have the GAA clubs and grounds named after Republican rerrorists and sickening displays like we witnessed at Galbally."
"Soccer is a very community orientated sport which is played by people across Northern Ireland regardless of religious or political opinion. It is true to say that both organisations and their clubs help to promote some wonderful qualities including team work, keeping fit and community spirit. However, it is extremely difficult to see how higher levels of funding for the GAA are justifiable given its limited appeal when you compare the two sports."
"I would call upon the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland, to look into this issue as soon as possible and work to ensure equality between the sport clubs and their governing bodies in terms of the money they receive."
Elliott's approach bears similarities with earlier calls (from John Laird, principally) for equality of funding to Irish and Ulster-Scots, despite the vast difference in the numbers of people, organisations, publications and so on. In this latter case the aim was clearly to vastly over-fund the Ulster-Scots sector, or more cynically, to try to starve the Irish language sector. In his similar calls for parity between the GAA and soccer, Elliott may well be attempting a similar exercise.
Elliott's call comes at a point in Northern Ireland's political development where his party, in conjunction with the English Tories, claim to be trying to de-sectarianise politics. This kind of call, though, with its clear call to Protestant tribal solidarity, seems to be at odds with the UCUNF project. This is, of course, not the first time that Elliott has acted against the spirit of the UCUNF project. But instead of merely being reported in the press, his current anti-GAA statements are now being featured on the UUP website – they represent, to all extents and purposes, UUP policy. This cannot therefore be seen as just another Elliott 'solo run' – it is a transposition of the dreary steeples of Mr Elliott's constituency to the wider UUP.
It seems that those who were cynical about the UCUNF non-merger when it was first announced are being proved correct. UCUNF claimed that it would offer a new type of politics, but it is now serving up more of the same old unionist tribalism.
What is surprising is that the strategists of the UUP have not noticed the yawning gap in the centre. As the DUP chase the TUV over to the wilder fringes of unionism, a large space is opening up closer to the centre – a space that includes moderate unionists, Alliance Party supporters, even some Catholics – who might be attracted to a tolerant, non-sectarian party that genuinely sought to represent everyone in Northern Ireland. By promoting the old-fashioned bigotry of people like Elliott the UUP is repelling such people, and ensuring that the UUP and its UCUNF project will not succeed. Only be reaching out to people from the cultural Catholic tradition will UCUNF have any hope of success. If it prefers to stay within its tribal comfort zone it will fail, and as the Protestant tribe diminishes proportionately its failure will help to ensure the end of Northern Ireland as a separate entity. For non-unionists this is, of course, to be welcomed, but it is a puzzle nonetheless why unionists appear to be so blind to the danger such tribalism poses to the very existence of their state.
If the UUP join the other unionists in a race to the right, they leave the centre unexploited – let alone the areas on the light green side of the divide that they desperately need to approach – especially now that the SDLP appears less capable of holding its own. It is a curious feature of Northern Irish politics that as both sides increasingly need to poach support from the centre, both sides seem to be abandoning that very centre ground. And yet at the same time the archetypal 'centre party' – Alliance – also appears incapable of capitalising on the lack of competition.