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Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson Photo by: AP

Unionist Leader Peter Robinson reaches out - attends GAA game

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Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson Photo by: AP

The animosity in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles was such that regular terrorist attacks occurred against Nationalists, whose only crime was playing Gaelic games.

GAA players and officials were regularly singled out for attack, and some of the most horrific slayings of The Troubles involved GAA personnel in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The GAA is the very symbol of nationalism.

The ancient Irish games have been played since 1884 in organized form, but before that they were played in various times in less organized fashion.

Ulster Protestants have never played the games and have shunned attending them, even when their counties were in All-Ireland finals, the Super Bowl of the GAA world.

That is why it was such a remarkable event to see the Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson attend a GAA game between Tyrone and Derry on Saturday night.

The attendance of Robinson speaks volumes for the man, and further indicates how much progress has been made in the peace process.

His fellow leader, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, stated that Robinson received a warm reception from the fans.

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McGuinness said Robinson’s presence was indicative of “an inclusive approach,” and was “another little piece of history."

"Peter got a very warm reception from everyone he met at the game. It was wonderful to have him there,” McGuinness said.

Gregory Campbell, a hard-line Unionist, actually agreed with Robinson attending the game.

“I think these issues are more about gestures. This is about symbolism and a gesture," he said.

"I think if it is offered in that context and received in that context then I would not quibble about it.  The GAA has been travelling in the right direction for some time now."

Of course it is all about symbolism in a state where symbols matter to the point where people kill for them.

When Robinson came to power there were many questions as to whether he would extend the hand of friendship as his predecessor Ian Paisley did.

His attendance at Saturday night’s game is another example of his clear intent in that regard.
It has been a good week for Northern Ireland. The city of Derry secured the Fleadh Cheoil, a lollapalooza of traditional Irish music that is expected to bring $40 million to the city’s coffers.

Such is the peace dividend for the North, and we should never let anyone forget it.

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