It has been a strange and extraordinary year for everyone, including the GAA and especially the association in Northern Ireland. This was a year that had been heralded by the uncertainty surrounding the final settlement of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
The Northern Ireland protocol may be a matter of unhappiness for the DUP but, as things stand, the island of Ireland isn’t going to be complicated with a major international border, which is good news for any 32-county organisation.
Notions, however, that the decent 2016 majority vote in the North in favour of continued EU membership might translate into inroads for the idea of a united Ireland have receded as the usual political divisions have re-emerged.
Such is the state of flux, though, that this year’s Northern Ireland census has been flagged for a while as being possibly the first to indicate that the Roman Catholic population has become the largest faith group in the state.
It has been an academic point of view, which scrupulously explains that such a demographic shift isn’t necessarily political, but there is no doubting its significance as a milestone.
Yet at this time of turbulence, the pandemic has created a more concrete border than has been seen for a while, allowing that the jittery but necessary measures to contain another plague, foot-and-mouth disease, didn’t last too long.
Recent weeks have seen some debate in the Ulster GAA, which also administers three counties in the Republic. This has been triggered by the North doing conspicuously better in terms of dealing with Covid both in suppressing numbers and rolling out the vaccine.
With these advances, clubs in the six counties are scheduled to return to restricted activities on April 12th should the Northern Ireland executive confirm their relaxation schedule after Easter.
This has prompted two separate responses: one, as argued by Armagh and Crossmaglen All-Ireland medallist Oisín McConville, that local Gaelic games should return as soon as the public health environment allows; and the other, as countered by Tyrone chair Michael Kerr, that the association should move as a single, 32-county entity.
It’s fair to say that the GAA’s Covid Advisory Group were not snubbing Kerr’s view of things when they rubber-stamped the potential return of clubs north of the Border. They were simply recognising realities.
There is a definite school of thought in Ulster that, if at all possible, the two jurisdictions should move in tandem – but that relies on there being no more than a couple of weeks in the difference. Unfortunately, clubs in the South are a fair degree off that trajectory.
Anyway, clubs will only have internal county competitions to occupy them, and there won’t be any crossing of paths with other provinces until next winter at the earliest.
There is a potential issue concerning the intercounty game, which is regarded – albeit with increasing anxiety – as likely to return in early April, with training permitted to resume.
That call has been left up to the Dublin Government, whose determination is expected towards the end of next week. Should the Covid numbers be sufficiently alarming to postpone that green light, what will there be to stop counties in the North returning to train when their clubs get the go-ahead on April 12th?
Ulster GAA has kept an even keel through all of this. Provincial CEO Brian McAvoy is a model of solid, low-key administration.
Just this week, Ulster Council was able to announce a sizeable slice of extra funding from Sport NI of £5.93 million (€6.9 million), a reflection of both the previously noted GAA acumen for completing compelling grant applications and perhaps the now less-controversial place of the association in the public affairs.
When added to the first tranche, it brought to £7.38 million (€8.5 million) the total received under the Sports Sustainability Fund – or not far off half what Gaelic games received (€18.5 million) from the Irish Government to subvent the running of last year’s All-Ireland championships.
So what is the GAA’s place in Northern Ireland? Gaelic games were for many years one of the few means of everyday cultural expression for nationalists and often targeted for that reason. The resentments that boiled over for more than 25 murderous years have proved difficult to address.
Ulster GAA has a laudable track record of working on outreach projects. At last July’s GAA Museum Summer School, there was a presentation on the role of sport in reconciliation in Northern Ireland from Armagh All-Ireland winner, Ulster GAA’s Diarmuid Marsden.
It was striking how much effort goes into small-scale victories like the cross-community Cúchulainn Cup, but the faultlines are never far away.
At a previous summer school in 2017, another well-known former Armagh footballer, Jarlath Burns – whose work in outreach as principal of St Paul’s in Bessbrook has been widely praised – struck a gloomier note when saying that he didn’t feel the GAA was ever going to turn around some unionist perceptions of, and associated disrespect for, the association.
Neither side, though, is blameless in the perceptions displayed to the other.
Last September there was trouble when public health directives were clearly ignored at the Tyrone football final. It was a canary in the coalmine in one sense, as similar disregard was pretty soon on show all over the country before Croke Park abruptly ended the club championship season.
Ulster Council released a statement in which it properly said, “we are living in a pandemic, and the post-match scenes did not portray the association in a positive light.”
First Minister Arlene Foster quickly condemned it on Twitter and the battle lines were drawn for a social media pile-on in which there was virtually no deviation from tribal loyalties.
It underlined the extraordinary job the Ulster Council has done to maintain the primacy of the games throughout a history that runs longer than the current and problematic centenary of the Northern state.
The drama behind the Anglo-Irish Treaty
On December 6th 1921 a document was signed that would shape Ireland for at least a century.
Throughout October, November and early December of 1921, tense negotiations on the future of the island took place in London after years of conflict.
The Irish team, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, were untrained and badly prepared. They lacked clear instructions or guidance and had no agreed counter-proposals prepared. They were not even a united team.
They also faced some serious British political talent, including the prime minister Lloyd George and future prime minister Winston Churchill.
In the early hours of the 6th of December 1921, the talks reached a dramatic climax at Number 10 Downing Street.
With the British under increasing pressure to get a deal done, an ultimatum was issued: sign or face war again.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. Its aim was to bring the curtain down on the war in Ireland and while it did mark the end of the War of Independence, it sparked another conflict almost immediately – the Civil War.
It also set the scene for the partition of Ireland with the devastating consequences that was to have half a century on from the signing of the Treaty.
Countless books, plays and even a Hollywood film have been made about the Treaty but what is it legacy and why is it an important story to tell?
Playwright Colin Murphy, historian Micheal O Fathartaigh, author Gretchen Friemann and Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy talk to In The News about the Treaty, the negotiations and the impact the document has had on Irish history.
Lewis Hamilton wins chaotic Saudi GP to draw level with Max Verstappen
After chaos, needle, misunderstanding and some absolutely uncompromising racing, it took a cool head to prevail and Lewis Hamilton duly delivered, his win at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ensuring there is now nothing in it going into the Formula One season finale.
Beating title rival Max Verstappen into second, the pair are now level on points after a race of complexity and confusion fitting perhaps in a season that has been impossible to predict. The two protagonists endured an ill-tempered race and both left with differing views, Hamilton accusing his rival of being dangerous and Verstappen aggrieved. What it made clear is that neither will leave anything on the table next week in Abu Dhabi.
The investigations and debriefs will go on long into the night after this staccato affair interrupted by red flags, safety cars and the two leaders clashing repeatedly on track but ultimately and crucially for his title hopes it was an exhausted Hamilton who came out on top.
Hamilton had gone into the race trailing Verstappen by eight points, they are now level. The lead has changed hands five times during this enthralling season, which has ebbed and flowed between them but of course Hamilton has experience in tense showdowns, pipped to his first title in the last race of 2007 and then sealing it in a nail-biting showdown in Brazil a year later.
Verstappen is in his first title fight but has shown no indication of being intimidated, instead eagerly grasping his chance to finally compete and he still has it all to play for despite his clear disappointment at the result at the Jeddah circuit.
Hamilton admitted how hard the race been. “I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough,” he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean. It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us.”
Hamilton’s race engineer Peter Bonnington credited his man with how he had handled it, noting: “It was the cool head that won out”. It was a necessary skill beyond that of wrestling with this tricky, high speed circuit, given the incidents that defined the race as it swung between the two rivals.
Hamilton held his lead from pole but an early red flag due to a crash left Verstappen out front when Red Bull had opted not to pit under a safety car. Thus far at least it was fairly straightforward.
When racing resumed from a standing start Hamilton, off like a bullet, had the lead into turn one but Verstappen went wide and cut the corner of two to emerge in front. Esteban Ocon took advantage to sneak into second only for the race to be stopped again immediately after several cars crashed in the midfield.
With the race stopped, the FIA race director, Michael Masi, offered Red Bull the chance for Verstappen to be dropped to third behind Hamilton because of the incident, rather than involving the stewards. In unprecedented scenes of negotiations with Masi, Red Bull accepted the offer, conceding Verstappen had to give up the place, with the order now Ocon, Hamilton.
Verstappen launched brilliantly at the restart, dove up the inside to take the lead, while Hamilton swiftly passed Ocon a lap later to move to second.
The front two immediately pulled away with Hamilton sticking to Verstappen’s tail, ferociously quick as they matched one another’s times. Repeated periods of the virtual safety car ensued to deal with debris littering the track and when racing began again on lap 37, Hamilton attempted to pass and was marginally ahead through turn one as both went off but Verstappen held the lead, lighting the touchpaper for the flashpoint.
Verstappen was told by his team to give the place back to Hamilton but when Verstappen slowed apparently looking to do so, Hamilton hit the rear of the Red Bull, damaging his front wing. Mercedes said they were unaware Verstappen was going to slow and the team had not informed Hamilton, who did not know what Verstappen was doing. Hamilton was furious, accusing Verstappen of brake-testing him. Both drivers are under investigation by the stewards for the incident and penalties may yet be applied.
Verstappen then did let Hamilton through but immediately shot back up to retake the lead but in doing so went off the track. He was then given a five-second penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage and a lap later Verstappen once more let his rival through, concerned he had not done so sufficiently on the previous lap. After all the chaos, Hamilton finally led and Verstappen’s tyres were wearing, unable to catch the leader who went on to secure a remarkable victory.
It was all too much for Verstappen who left the podium ceremony immediately the anthems concluded. “This sport is more about penalties than racing and for me this is not Formula One,” he said “A lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with.”
Both teams had diverging viewpoints on the incidents but both must now look forward. After 21 highly competitive races, the last a febrile, unpredictable drama, the season will be decided in a one-off shootout where both drivers have without doubt earned their place but just when the respect between them appears at its lowest ebb. – Guardian
Covid testing rules for all arrivals into State come into force
New Covid testing rules for travellers arriving into the State have come into force today.
At the start of the week the Government announced that all incoming travellers except those travelling from Northern Ireland will have to present a negative test result in order to enter the country irrespective of the vaccination status.
The move came in response to concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
The test requirements were due to be introduced from midnight on Thursday. However the system was postponed at the last minute to midnight on Sunday in order to allow airlines prepare for checks.
For those with proof of vaccination they can show a negative professionally administered antigen test carried out no more than 48 hours before arrrival or a PCR test taken within 72 hours before arrival. Those who are unvaccinated must show a negative PCR test result.
Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary had described the move as “nonsense” and “gobbledygook”.
Meanwhile more than 150 passengers have departed Morocco for Ireland on a repatriation flight organised by the Government.
The 156 passengers on the flight from Marrakech to Dublin included Irish citizens as well as citizens of several other EU countries and the UK.
The journey was organised after flights to and from Morocco were suspended earlier this week until at least December 13th, amid fears over the spread of the new Omicron Covid-19 variant.
The repatriation flight on Saturday was operated on behalf of the Government by Ryanair.
Responding to news of the flight’s departure, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney hailed the efforts of the Irish Embassy in Rabat in the operation, tweeting: “Well done and thank you!”.
On Saturday the number of Covid patients in hospital has fallen to 487, the lowest level in almost four weeks, the latest official figures show. The number of Covid patients in hospital fell by 41 between Friday and Saturday. There were 5,622 further cases of Covid-19 reported on Saturday.
Tweeting about the latest hospital figures on Saturday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the “plan is working – 3rd doses, masks, test & isolate, physical distancing. Thank you for what you are doing. Please don’t lose heart. Let’s all have a safe Christmas.”
The figures come as the Government on Friday announced its most wide-ranging introduction of new restrictions this year after “stark” warnings from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to take immediate action in the face of the threat from the Omicron variant.
From Tuesday until at least January 9th, indoor hospitality will be limited to parties of up to six adults per table, while nightclubs will be closed and indoor events limited to half a venue’s capacity. Advice has been issued that households should not host more than three other households in their home, while the use of the vaccine pass is to be extended to gyms and hotel bars and restaurants.
Trinity College immunologist Prof Luke O’Neill said the main reason for the new restrictions was the new Omicron variant, and he thought they were needed as the “next three to four weeks are going to be tough”. Speaking to Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ radio, he said it was “strange” that restrictions were being introduced when things are stabilising, with the lowest hospital numbers since November 6th.
Prof O’Neill said he was “hopeful” at news that the Omicron variant may have a piece of the common cold virus in it which could make it more like the common cold.
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