Declan Bonner: This is a race the GAA must win


Crossmaglen’s Aaron Cunningham.

IT WAS disturbing last weekend to hear and read the comments of the Crossmaglen player Aaron Cunningham after his team’s Ulster senior club final win over Kilcoo.


Cunningham spoke to journalists after the game and raised an issue that many felt they’d never see creep into the realm of Gaelic Games: racism.

The forward claimed that he was subjected to abuse of a racist nature during the game. He was visibly upset, angered and confused as he spoke at the Athletic grounds.

Cunningham claimed that two Kilcoo players abused him on separate occasions and they he was called a number of well-known derogatory names during the game. These are claims that should not be taken lightly.

“You go out to play football in a good sporting manner, hard-hitting and that, but when race comes into it, I think it’s disgusting, to be honest,” Cunningham said.

“I don’t want to let it overshadow what has been a good game and a 10th title for us, three-in-a-row and number five for myself. But I feel it has to be said, because what was said has no place on a football pitch.

“I don’t actually want to repeat it but the N-word was used and the word Paki was used too. Looking at me, it’s a bit ignorant on his behalf for calling me a Paki. I addressed the linesman, who was standing no more than 10 yards away. I can’t say if he heard it or not. He said he didn’t. I told him what was said. I just felt it was absolutely disgusting.”

The talk of racism in the GAA has been going on for a while now, since the Wexford footballer, Lee Chin, came out and spoke about the racial abuse he suffered on the pitch a few months back.


It has been there for a lot longer, but I suppose it has all really come to a head now, especially with everything that has gone on in the Premier League soccer in England and the huge media spotlight that fell upon the case of John Terry, the Chelsea captain, and Luis Suarez, the Liverpool player.

It has come to the fore now following alleged remarks made to Cunningham, regarding his father Joey, who was one of the first black inter-county players.

I played quite a bit with Joey, who was on the same Republic of Ireland under 17 soccer team as me.

In fact, we used to room together when we were away at matches. He was a lovely fella and we struck up a great friendship during those times.

Joey was also a very good Gaelic footballer, who played for Armagh. Even at that early age, when I first got to know him, he was the target for physical and verbal abuse during games. He wasn’t the tallest player in the world, but was a very sharp corner forward when he came on the scene – and he also played Irish League soccer for Portadown.

I knew him in the early 1980s and racism was clearly rife then as poor Joey found out most of the time he took to a pitch.

Racism is a huge problem in many of the big soccer Leagues around the world – but the GAA have a chance to perhaps act or put measures in place to ensure that it doesn’t become an ill for our games.

There are an awful lot of players getting involved now from all countries and cultures. Looking around the clubs of Donegal, there are particularly a lot of underage players, orginally from abroad, or born to ‘non-national’ parents, taking up Gaelic Football – and I think this is a really positive step for the GAA and something we should all be embracing.

It’s great to see them becoming involved in their local clubs and getting integrated into what is clearly a large part of their communities and parishes.

These recent headlines and the huge publicity given to these latest allegations do nothing to either enhance the GAA’s reputation as an all-inclusive organisation or to attract these people from the wider community into its ranks. I would go as far as to say that this is right up there with some of the GAA’s major concerns at present.

Racism is a thorny topic and we saw with the recent allegations against the Premier League referee, Mark Clattenburg, that there are very live instances of mis-hearing certain heat-of-the-moment comments and interpreting them as something way off the mark.

Such is its delicate nature, but if a referee or any of his officials hear comments of a racial tone then the perpetrator must be punished – and severely so.

The thing about these sort of comments on a football pitch is that they can be very hard to monitor. Unless it has been picked up by a referee, linesman or an umpire, then it’s one player’s word against the other’s. They must now be very pro-active when it comes to picking up on the comments.

The football pitch and the sporting courts also have their own avenues for dealing with such instances. Acquitted by Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle during a five-day trial at Westminster magistrates’ court in July on charges of racial abuse against the QPR player Anton Ferdinand, Terry was subsequently handed a four-game ban and a £220,000 by Football Association independent regulatory commission, who found the Chelsea player guilty of the same charge.

When a huge organisation like the Premier League struggles with the stigma of racism, then we can see the slope our own organisation could slide down if measures aren’t take – proactive measures, that is, rather than reactive ones.

We know that ‘sledging’ goes on in games and has been since the beginning of the games. Some of the stuff that goes on was laid bare last year in Declan Bogue’s now infamous book ‘This Is Our Year’.

I remember one of the first games I played for the Donegal senior team and coming in for a serious ribbing from the guy marking me. We were playing Armagh in Ballybofey and I was in at corner-forward. They had a sticky corner-back playing for them that day who gave it to me every time we went for a ball: “Right, Bonner, you Free State b******”.

‘Sledging’ goes on in every game, but there is a line that cannot be crossed. Sometimes, as a player, you have to rise above certain comments – but there are remarks and insults which cannot nor should not be ignored.

In fairness to Liam O’Neill, the GAA President, he has been saying this week that it’s an issue the Association must tackle serious and also to be fair to the Ulster Council, they have acted swiftly in setting up a body to examine the events of last Sunday’s final between Crossmaglen and Kilcoo.

Their hearing into the allegations and their subsequent findings could well prove to be a watershed moment for Gaelic Games in this regard.

We await their findings with both interest and hope.

All-County League Division 1

THE CURTAIN falls on the 2012 All-County League Division 1 campaign tomorrow with the relegation play-off between Dungloe and Gaoth Dobhair – and it’s not before time.

We’re just two weeks away from Christmas and are only wrapping up a League that began way back in March. We had to rush in with five games in the month of April and, yet, here we are in December only putting the finishing touches to the campaign.

It raises the old chestnut of the direction of the All-County League and measures that can or need to be taken to make sure that this scenario doesn’t arise in the coming years. With Donegal doing so well in the last two years, there needs to be something put in place to ensure that the club scene in the county doesn’t fall by the wayside. It is neither being presumptuous nor arrogant; surely there can be no harm in having a plan in place to make sure that possible success and progression for the county team doesn’t derail the club calendar.

With the final weekend of All-County League action now upon us, I’m going to take a quick run through an email that I received back at the end of October from Glenswilly member Johnny McGinley. It’s an interesting proposal for a revamp of the League – and is published, here.

This hasn’t, by the way, come in just because his club was relegated last Sunday. It was a proposal submitted at the end of October that had been in the making for some time – and was borne out of a frustration shared by many club football people in Donegal.

Divisions should not arise between our clubs and our county team and I think it’s great that someone like Johnny has taken the time to pen his thoughts and come up with a suggestion. It’s heartening to see that interest and I would be interested to hear from other people who either have similar or different opinions on how the club scene should be structured – what harm can some debate do? You never know, we might even find a common ground along the way.

A lot of clubs have suffered because of having to play without their county players who, at club level, are the marquee names. Glenswilly, for instance, have had to play without Neil Gallagher and Michael Murphy – two All-Stars, the county midfielder and the county captain – for practically all of their League games. Is it right that the club that put so much time, effort and coaching into developing these players is basically punished for their success and development? Of course it’s not. And the same is true, too, for all the other clubs who’ve paid a price for playing minus their county players.

This proposal from Johnny has had a lot of work put into it and it’s from a guy who played club football with Glenswilly. It’s a proposal that should be looked at because I think it’s an exciting one that could really enhance the appeal of the League. The system needs changing because, and this is something most will agree with, what is in place now simply isn’t working.

The club is so, so important – it is where every young kid will start off, pick up their first O’Neill’s and begin to dream the dreams now being lived by the likes of Michael Murphy.

With this system, clubs can play without county players on a lot of weekends, but what it also does is basically guarantee clubs regular football – and with the GAA now being on a huge high in Donegal we should harnass the feel-good factor that has swept the county to grow numbers and keep our exisiting club players happy within our ranks.


CROSSMAGLEN lifted their sixth Ulster title in seven years with Sunday’s win over Kilcoo. They did it with 13 players and as the weeks and years go on you just run out of comments and plaudits for Cross. They’ve done it and they just keep doing it. Whenever they lose a man, they can overcome it, because that’s the way the play the game – on the edge, to the limit.

Dr Crokes took the Munster title last Sunday and I wouldn’t discount them from winning the Andy Merrigan Cup on St Patrick’s Day. There can be no doubt, though, that Crossmaglen remain the team to beat. Tir Chonaill Gaels are now waiting in the wings for Dr Crokes next weekend in Ruislip.

What an occasion that will be for the Gaels in their 50th year. It’s a huge landmark for them and hopefully they can put up a show.

In the early 90s they put up a huge show against the Derry champions Lavey, but lost out in extra-time.

Donegal has always been well-served by the Gaels club and it would be great to see them have a good day out in such a big milestone celebration year for them.

Kilcar Minors

KILCAR minors showed last Sunday the rewards that some hard work in a club can reap. They won the minor title thanks to a win over St Eunan’s and their side has some fantastic young players, most especially the McHughs – Ryan and Eoin – Stephen McBrearty and Aodhán McGinley. They just keep turning out fabukous young players and it bodes well for the club and for Donegal.


Do you have a comment to make on any of the above, or would you like Declan to raise an issue? If so, you can contact him by email at



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