Time for new anthem for a new Ireland

LIKE any half-decent barrister, TUV leader Jim Allister understands that the people who sit on juries don’t necessarily use their intelligence when making decisions.

The same applies to voters. Barristers-cum-unionist politicians, from Edward Carson to Bob McCartney, have always appreciated this. Allister is the latest. Their strategy is simple. Whip up emotion and play on fears.

Ian Paisley was the undisputed master. He copied Carson. Allister comes from the same school.

On a recent televised debate, Allister delivered a trademark performance. He went through the list of deep-seated unionist phobias and ticked every one of them. The GAA got a touch. Allister criticised the DUP for not blocking funding to assist the redevelopment of Casement Park.

Northern nationalists are well used to listening to politicians doing it. But what they’re unaccustomed to is seeing them struggle for votes.

North Antrim should be a playground for an anti-agreement, anti-everything candidate like Allister. But he only got into Stormont by the skin of his teeth with the lowest number of votes and under the quota.

These are truly wondrous times and the pace of change is astonishing. Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott labelled Sinn Féin supporters as “scum”. Not that long ago, Elliott would have been carried shoulder-high out of the election hall for this remark. But no more. Elliott received calls from party members asking him to explain himself.

Tom Elliott is still playing catch-up. He can’t call Sinn Féin voters scum when those same voters included the recently murdered PSNI constable, Ronan Kerr.

When a northern politician who says “no” struggles to get elected and a unionist leader receives mass condemnation for insulting Sinn Féin, then an irrevocable change has taken place. On top of all that, the Queen is coming to Croke Park.

Of course, the monarch’s visit to the stadium where 14 unarmed people were killed after British troops is certain to cause unease.

But the leadership clearly feels the association has a role to play in repairing some ancient wounds. Irish politicians believe the symbolism of the Queen visiting Croke Park will help the healing process.

However, if the GAA is going to accept it can make a contribution to political relations, and that it can influence change, then it could try to heal some of the bigger rifts closer to home. The Soldier’s Song is one such sore. Our national anthem is about an ambush on English soldiers. It will be played in Ballybofey on Sunday and every big game for the next five months.

Don’t get me wrong. I probably like Amhrán na bhFiann even more than the next man. And like most fans, my attachment is largely sentimental, as it’s synonymous with warm days and the adrenaline that comes before the throw-in.

Yet, as much as I like our trusty anthem, it doesn’t fit into a new, modern Ireland.

It was telling that Edwin Poots deliberately missed the playing of the anthem when he became the first unionist politician to attend a GAA match.

Democratic Unionist Party. Ulster Unionist Party. Traditional Unionist Voice. Progressive Unionist Party. The clue is in the names. Irrespective of their differences, unionists still believe in the Union. It’s entirely understandable that they can’t celebrate it.

This is not to say that unionists are precluded from being Irish or representing Ireland. One of the greatest virtues of rugby is that allows us to support a 32-county team.

But it is the preamble to rugby internationals which graphically illustrates the huge failings of Amhrán na bhFiann.

A national anthem should unite a nation. It should be something everyone can sing.

But tradition and external forces will never allow some players join their team-mates in singing a song utterly alien to them.

What good is a national anthem if it alienates a quarter of its nation? And if unionists can play for Ireland, then Ireland should give them an anthem that they can sing. It’s not like we have a shortage.

And the debate should start now. The copyright on Amhrán na bhFiann expires next year on the 70th anniversary of the death of author Peadar Kearney.

Michael Noonan believes the Government may need to intervene in order to protect it. Why bother? The GAA’s leadership could lobby for this change.

Politicians like Allister now struggle to exploit unionist fears. The rule preventing members of the security forces from joining the GAA is in the dustbin.

The GAA pallbearers who carried Ronan Kerr handed his coffin to members of the PSNI. And whether nationalists understand it or not, many unionists remain loyal to their Queen. Now we rightly welcome Elizabeth II into Croke Park. The basic aim of the GAA is the “strengthening of the national identity in a 32-county Ireland”. But what is that identity?

Amhrán na bhFiann is an anti-English song.

It’s never a good idea to define yourself by outlining what you are against. That’s Jim Allister territory.


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