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Ciarán Murphy: Derry have faced down worse crises than an outsider in charge of their football team

When they talk about ‘a Derry job for Derry people’, it would help if so many of their previous managers weren’t from outside the county

There have been many surprise managerial appointments in the GAA, but I don’t think any has produced so visceral a reaction as the outrage that greeted the appointment of Mickey Harte as the new Derry manager last autumn. That decision directly impacted two counties and neither of those two are Tyrone, the county that was glad to see the back of Harte in late 2020.

Back then, the Tyrone county board refused to give him an extension after his three-year agreement had run its course at the end of that championship, and wanted to open the job to any and all applicants. Harte could have reapplied, but instead, having read the room, stepped down. The Tyrone county board were hardly acting out of step with public opinion in the county at that time. Everyone agreed it was time for a change.

So for Tyrone people now to be offended at the idea of Harte managing Derry seems a little rich. You can’t have it both ways. You had him for 18 years, he won you three All-Irelands, the only three you’d won up to that point – whatever you felt he owed Tyrone, the debt had been long paid.

Galway won their last two All-Ireland football titles with a Mayo man in charge. Like Harte, John O’Mahony had done his time with his native county. It ended in a bit of acrimony, as these things often do. O’Mahony left Mayo, went on to manage Leitrim, and won a Connacht title with them, before taking the Galway job.


Mayo hired John Maughan, and got to two All-Ireland finals in a row. If Mayo people were appalled that O’Mahony won an All-Ireland with their fiercest rivals, it was kept pretty quiet. They might have looked on enviously, but they understood that they had had their chance with O’Mahony, and time waits for no man.

The righteous anger on Derry’s behalf is perhaps more understandable. When they talk about “a Derry job for Derry people”, it would help if so many of their previous managers weren’t from outside the county, but maybe we should adjust our expectations when it comes to this particular rivalry.

This isn’t Brian Mullins taking over Derry – this is the man who has defined Tyrone football in this century. It would be naive to presume to know the precise dynamics at play, because nothing really prepares you for the difference between the GAA in the North, and elsewhere.

Inspired by Malachy Clerkin’s piece in this paper late last year, we went up to Bellaghy last week to record a podcast with the family of Seán Brown, the Bellaghy Wolfe Tones chairman who was kidnapped by the LVF while he was locking the gates of his GAA club, taken away and shot dead, in 1997.

We spoke to Sean’s daughter and grandson about their fight for justice, and the impact of the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 on the inquest currently ongoing into the case. Jarlath Burns, the incoming president of the GAA, had been with them in the Bellaghy clubhouse the night before.

There is enough time for the inquest into Seán Brown’s murder to finish before May 1st, if the will is there on all sides

This Sunday, before Tyrone and Derry play, before (as seems inevitable) Mickey Harte runs the gauntlet of both the home and away supporters, the family of Seán Brown will walk from Free Derry Corner to Celtic Park.

They will walk with the family of Patsy Kelly, an SDLP councillor and prominent member of Trillick St Macartan’s GAA club in Tyrone, who was murdered by the UDR in 1974. The Northern Ireland attorney general had directed a new inquest following a Police Ombudsman report, but the Kelly family have already been advised that the new Legacy Act is such that their inquest will likely never happen.

All legacy inquests must be completed by May 1st, 2024. There is enough time for the inquest into Seán Brown’s murder to finish before May 1st, if the will is there on all sides. The Kelly and Brown families – one from Tyrone, one from Derry – ask the GAA community for support in their fight for justice. They have mine. But what is it worth? What can it achieve?

I don’t know the answer to those questions. But last Wednesday in Bellaghy was an incredibly powerful day. The image that returns to me time and time again is the person who locks the gates at my own club. My own father was the last man out enough times. If he had been murdered in similar circumstances, it would have brought the country to a standstill.

Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar clashed again this week over the Irish Government’s decision to formally lodge a legal challenge to the Legacy Act in the European Court of Human Rights. Opposition to the act is universal across all of Northern Ireland’s major parties, a noteworthy achievement in itself.

Before we met the Brown family, we went to Conor Glass’s coffee shop in Maghera. He was there, making our coffees, with the three cups Glen won this year sitting on the table in front of him – Derry, Ulster and All-Ireland trophies. If the Derry county board think Mickey Harte gives Conor Glass the best chance of adding a few more trophies to that haul, I can’t say I’m opposed. They’ve faced down worse crises than an outsider in charge of their football team. Both counties walking into Celtic Park on Sunday have.