Story of Peadar Heffron’s ostracisation should mark a turning point for NI and the GAA…

Taking in the air of the men’s changing rooms in 1980s Dungiven gives a man some perspective, and nobody could have written up that interview with Peadar Heffron quite like Joe Brolly.

The story that Brolly had to tell was, of course, that of his interviewee but it came with an authenticity that was as much to do with Brolly’s own lived experience as it was to do with his skill in setting out a narrative. He didn’t have to imagine.

Somehow the reaction was predictable and fascinating at the same time.

Most of the northern GAA grassroots, of course, condemn the Heffron attack and disagree with his ousting from his club, but read some of their comments and be forgiven for thinking it took place in the deep midwinter of the Troubles rather than as recently as 2010.

I can understand why he was ostracised, some of them say, a lot of people would have felt the same. At that time. Maybe not so much now. Times have changed.

I don’t agree with anyone getting hurt, they say, but at the end of the day, Peadar was naïve thinking he could just join the PSNI and that everyone would accept it. Back then.

Brolly resisted attempts by others to set the club apart. Those were ordinary people who so cruelly ostracised Heffron from his boyhood club. Those were ‘people like us’ who so callously abandoned Heffron not just at the time of his joining the PSNI but even after the hamstrings and glutes they showered beside for years were torn from his body.

Heffron’s club is not a social outlier in the north, even if other clubs like Beragh Red Knights have distinguished themselves. Five of the six counties had voted in favour of banning the PSNI just months before Heffron joined.

Shunning him would have had constitutional legitimacy had the southern counties (and Down) not had the foresight now accepted by most northerners only in hindsight.

For many life-long northern GAA folk this story is the mirror of their earlier selves they may prefer not to look into.

This story is as much catalytic as it is reflective. It creates a change in attitudes as much as it illustrates a change that has gone before. You cannot read a story as powerful as Heffron’s, so powerfully written, and not be moved.

“The snow and ice had staunched the haemorrhaging as he lay on the road, keeping him alive until the ambulance appeared. But now the blood was pumping out; 140 units (a unit is roughly a pint) were transfused into him. It went in one end and out the other.”

We’re only now learning of the detail of the attack and only now has Peadar given voice to the savagery of it. Only now are the shockwaves hitting the shore, seven years after the event and after seven years of more holes appearing in the old defensive walls.

What might in the past have been blocked by the old equivocation ‘terrible things happen in war’ has now begun soaking into the community conscience. ‘Back then’, Ronan Kerr was still running around in O’Neill’s shorts and the only traitors to Ireland were those who lay neatly in bogs.

It has always taken the blood sacrifice of one’s own to change opinion in Ireland. Change for good, change for bad, change whatever. It is the Irish disease. Heffron is the latest in a long line of Irishmen whose spilt blood has been the fuel for a shift in attitudes.

The majority in the GAA may not have actively advanced the ex-communication of young police officers from clubs, but how many would have stood back in similar circumstances and let it happen?

How many would have accepted it as the way things were, ‘understood’ it, tolerated it, not got involved and thereby involved themselves by omission – lent it the force of silence? More than would now let on, and certainly, more than would let it happen now. The image of Heffron’s blood has seen to that.

Some will point out that there is still some road to travel. There is a distinction, of course, between Heffron’s forced exiling on the one hand and the placing of explosives under his seat on the other.

But many did not see that there is a direct line between the two. Fewer still, even today, will see that an organisation that roots itself symbolically in physical force republicanism will continue to send some mixed messages to its young people.

O’Donovan Rossa was ‘back then’. Sam Maguire and Roger Casement, later, were ‘back then’. Sean South, though later again, another man’s ‘back then’. Kevin Lynch? Was he back then?

Maybe these naming rights are nobody else’s business. Maybe outsiders can like it or lump it. Fine, as long we all understand that there are more passive means of exclusion than the boycott Heffron experienced and that they work just as well.