MLA Jim Wells has showed no signs of backing down over comments he made in the Northern Assembly on Monday when he labeled the GAA as "sectarian" and "republican" in nature. Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show on Tuesday morning, the South Down MLA defended his claim, saying that the GAA is "99.9% nationalist."
Mr Wells was speaking in the assembly during a debate on the Executive Committee (Functions) Bill - which some MLAs feared may give ministers too much power - when he made the initial remarks:
"The implications are absolutely enormous as the future of Northern Ireland is concerned. Take Casment Park for instance. Now Casement Park is a planning decision but say Sinn Fein, as they could with the department of communities, decide to spend a vast amount of money to make Casement Park even grander.
"That would cause huge concern among the Unionist community given the sectarian, republican nature of GAA."
A spokesperson for Ulster GAA refuted the claim, telling the Irish News: "We are clearly not a sectarian organisation and as the largest sporting body in the province we ensure our cross-community activities take priority alongside our sporting activities."
Meanwhile, SDLP MLA - and 2002 All-Ireland winner with Armagh - Justin McNulty criticised the remarks, saying that "There are hundreds of people in GAA clubs across this island who have done more to reconcile our communities and bring people together than Jim Wells."
My statement in relation to Jim Wells’ totally unacceptable comments in the Assembly today. pic.twitter.com/CIIjkhd3Z1
— Justin McNulty (@JustinMcNu1ty) July 27, 2020
Questioned on the Nolan Show about his remarks, Mr Wells claimed that over the last 16 years "there still has been no progress made on making the GAA more inclusive to the whole community. It's 99.9% nationalist."
He added "The GAA has done nothing, in my opinion, to make itself more inclusive and friendlier to the Protestant community," and stated that "The perception of the GAA amongst the unionist community is that it's simply one side of the community and they [unonists] are excluded."
Earlier in the day, Ulster GAA chief executive, Brian McAvoy had appeared on BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster show and referenced the GAA's effort to help communities since the outbreak of the Covid-10 pandemic, after Mr Wells' comments were put to him:
"In the last number of weeks and months, GAA volunteers everywhere have been to the forefront of the community response, delivering food parcels and delivering pharmaceuticals to our most vulnerable in our communities.
"I am quite certain we were not asking people their religion or political persuasion before we were knocking on their doors."
He added: "On this coming Friday, in Croke Park, we have the Muslim festival of Eid taking place - because of restricted numbers and restricted venues, they have chosen Croke Park to hold this - so I think that shows that we are certainly not sectarian."
Mr McAvoy also could have referenced the newly formed East Belfast GAA club which played its first match earlier this month. Situated in a traditionally unionist area, the club's crest has the word "Together" emblazoned in English, Irish and Ulster Scots, and the club's Twitter bio includes the line "Players of all backgrounds welcome."