It is noteworthy that the first days of the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party by Tom Elliott are characterised by what he will apparently not do rather than what he is determined to accomplish.
Mr Elliott is skittish about attending GAA matches. He was also churlish about supporting Down in the All Ireland final. If Mr Elliott was really shrewd he would realise, as the incoming leader of a political party that has been consigned to the margins, no longer centrally relevant to society’s destiny and whose dwindling, ageing membership grows more sedentary and apathetic, that he has much to learn from the GAA. A new leader has political capital in the bank. A new leader ought to be abundant with energy, vision and novelty, not sclerotic, like the centurion guard of a tribe threatened with extinction.
The Ulster Unionist Party is 21 years younger than the GAA – a callow youth in comparison, but, in common with many political parties, it achieves little traction with the age group that the GAA so expertly attracts and captivates.
The GAA has a legacy extending back 125 years and claims a million members, mostly young, able and ambitious individuals whose genius and ingenuity will define the potential of Irish and Northern Ireland society for coming generations. The GAA is an organisation that has thrived on change, embraced diversity and repositioned itself at the mainstream of Irish society, especially among young people and is strengthened as a consequence.
If Mr Elliott believes that he has the imagination and capacity to reinvigorate his moribund party he could also learn much from the organisational skills and grass-roots savvy of the GAA and, especially, how it has successfully navigated fundamental change to its policies and rules without jeopardising its own existence. He could learn how it attracts, inspires and fosters the loyalty of tens of thousands of young members. But to gain these insights personally he must earn the trust of those who can describe the insights and experience. That involves steering his sturdy Fermanagh feet onto the terraces of various GAA grounds from time to time. The fact that Sir Edward Carson enjoyed hurling and was a member of Cumann Iománaíochta at Trinity College prior to the founding of the GAA should not make such a proposition an unduly distressful ordeal for Mr Elliott.
The passage of the British-Irish Agreement in the 19th Amendment of the Irish Constitution on 22 May 1998 by a majority of 93% of those voting means, unequivocally, that there is no threat to the political interests that Mr Elliott represents - other than through the free will of the people.
But if Mr Elliott’s political legacy is to be constrained by archaic shibboleths and yesterday’s thinking then he might as well hide and record his thoughts on his office voice mail to assure his followers that he has nothing new or inspiring to say to them and that their destiny under his leadership will not mean they become more self-sufficient, more prosperous, or more self-confident.