A security alert at playing fields used by East Belfast GAA is the act of a “small minority who want to return to the Northern Ireland of the 1970s”, according to the club’s former president.
Linda Ervine made the comments after the council-owned pitch in the Castlereagh area of the city was searched by police and army technical officers for devices on Tuesday. The surrounding roads were closed and sports ground sealed off.
The alert began late on Monday evening and resulted in the closure of Loughview Integrated Primary School and nursery.
The school’s principal, Sean Spillane, said he was “disillusioned and angered”.
“We’re now having to explain to our children that some people, because they don’t agree with a particular sport being played across the road from our school, that they can’t exercise their right to come to school today,” he told the BBC.
“I’m so shocked today that we’ve had to take this action, but more than anything it’s just disappointment.”
In a statement, the cross-community East Belfast GAA described how “disheartened” it was by the alert at the Henry Jones Playing Fields:
“We, alongside many sports teams in East Belfast who share these pitches, have worked hard to revive these facilities for all members of the community and are saddened at those who threaten to disrupt the peace and cause alarm.”
The club was set up during lockdown in 2020 – when co-founder Dave McGreevy posted a tweet on a Sunday morning to gauge interest and was inundated with responses, including many from Protestant backgrounds who had never played – but within months was targeted when a pipe bomb was planted in a bin of the Henry Jones pitch and another device was placed under a member’s car. Broken glass was also left on the grounds.
The club has around 650 members on its books – including 200 children – and is among the biggest in Ulster.
However, it has no permanent base to train.
On Tuesday, the club said the latest incident was “especially disappointing” following a Belfast City Council (BCC) decision two months ago to reallocate some of the underutilised space at the grounds to facilitate a GAA pitch.
It will be the first publicly-owned GAA pitch in east Belfast – an area where many unionist strongholds remain but is also home to younger residents from different traditions due in part to cheaper house prices – a development that the club said is “long overdue”.
“The underutilisation of space meant that four football pitches had been used for around 100 hours per year by football clubs. GAA teams used these facilities for around 300 hours per year. This space will now be used in a more efficient manner with one full-size GAA pitch and one full-size football pitch accommodating both GAA and local football clubs. Any displacement has been resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned with the assistance of BCC.”
It added: “Our membership is diverse, and we are proud to be part of an ever-changing, multicultural city.”
Ms Ervine, an Irish language activist and sister-in-law of the late Progressive unionist Party (PUP) leader David Ervine, served as honorary president of the club for over two years.
She condemned the intimidation of the club and the forced closure of the school.
“Today an integrated primary school had to close because of a security alert which appears to have targeted a cross-community GAA club. Lots of people working hard to move forward but being held back by a small minority who want to return to the Northern Ireland of the 1970s”.
In an interview with The Irish Times last year, Ms Ervine spoke of her decision to become involved with the club: “The fact there was going to be people playing GAA in east Belfast and even putting GAA and east Belfast together in the same sentence; what it spoke to me was a future of hope and change; of a new Northern Ireland and moving away from the past.”
Earlier this month, a TUV election candidate, Anne Smyth, who is the mother of BBC Northern Ireland director Adam Smyth, and failed in her bid to get elected to Belfast City Council, criticised Ms Ervine and East Belfast GAA.
In a Facebook post before the local government elections, she said the decision to cancel a “taster” GAA session at Strandtown Primary School in east Belfast was “justifiable in view of the sectarian nature of the supposed ‘sporting’ organisation that is the GAA”.
SDLP councillor for the area, Séamas de Faoite, described the alert as an “utter disgrace” while the Green Party’s east Belfast representative, Brian Smyth, said he was “absolutely livid” at the intimidation of the club.
“Where does it end, with someone seriously hurt or worse? ...” Cllr Smyth posted.
East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson also criticised those behind the alert:
“Sport cancelled. Community disrupted. School closed. For what? Catch a grip,” the DUP MP tweeted.
Alliance Party leader and East Belfast MLA Naomi Long said that the situation was “utterly unacceptable”.