GAA inability to stick with decisions falls way short of lovely hurling

Why is it so hard to make and uphold rulings in the association?

The democracy of the GAA can be portrayed as its great strength, but it also creates big obstacles for problem resolution. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The democracy of the GAA can be portrayed as its great strength, but it also creates big obstacles for problem resolution. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho


All-Ireland referee David Coldrick was talking about something else entirely when he encapsulated a central, uncomfortable truth about the GAA.

Talking about the challenge for match officials in administering the new football rules, he said: “Once the association gives its full backing to these rules, there’ll be no issue from a refereeing point of view.”

Once the association gives “its full backing”, we wondered? To its own rules? Coldrick elaborated by saying that he expected the enforcement of the new provisions – primarily the black card with its immediate dismissal of players, who may however be replaced – to trigger negative reaction, which in turn would place pressure on the GAA and perhaps undermine its determination to confront cynical play.

He was thinking about the manner in which experimental rules frequently withered and died in the toxic blasts issuing from managers during the trialling period. But he could have been talking about policy making in
general. Why is it so hard to make and
uphold decisions in the GAA?

As a snapshot of the deliberative processes, this weekend’s central council conclave on the format of next year’s hurling league is a thing of beauty.

Less than a year ago a format was agreed and it was made known in the early part of this year that it would be best for the new league structure to bed in unaltered for a few years.

Instead – well, to paraphrase – last month a comparatively radical new idea (in that it penalised certain counties while advancing others) was floated and after the predictable uproar, an ingenious third way was suggested and this will be voted on in three days – together with yet another proposal, from those counties still aggrieved.

Independent republics
The democracy of the association can be portrayed as its great strength but it also creates major obstacles for problem resolution. Having to steer agreement through 32 independent republics or a workable majority of them creates difficulties in an organisation, made up of units some of which unerringly see personal disadvantage in proposals for reform or even necessary change.

The flip side of this is the perpetual impulse to tweak things that have by and large been working. As proponents of the league status quo have pointed out, this year has seen the top-flight division play out so tightly that you could hardly get a bus ticket between any two of the six counties involved; even the relegation play-off went to extra time.

There followed an exceptional championship with high public interest, surprises, history being made by counties, who needed to make it, two blockbuster All-Ireland matches and unexpected winners.

The history makers were Limerick and Dublin, neither of whom had won a provincial title in respectively, a long time and a vastly long time. Both hurled in the lower section of Division One. Last July, John Allen the Limerick manager – a long-time complainant about the six-county top tier – described it as “a bit amazing that two Division One B teams have won the provincial titles”.

So why change? Bigger counties were unhappy at the reduced revenues produced by the smaller, six-team divisions and there were fears that the cure for this – an extra layer of unappetising play-offs – would be worse than the ailment.

These aren’t trivial matters but if the decision was to be that a new structure should be introduced, surely it should have been on the basis of clearly laid-out procedures that would allow all affected counties to play next season for their status in 2015?

The substantive issue of the hurling league has become almost a sideshow, as the GAA stages a version of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, getting increasingly stuck in different formats the more it struggles to resolve the issue.

Shifting hierarchies
Of most significance in all of this is the path that led to all of to-ing and fro-ing on the matter rather than whatever destination central council reaches on Saturday.

The trouble with hurling as distinct from football is one of shifting hierarchies. This has nothing to do with the identity of the best county but with the precise number of realistic contenders. Without the competitive depth of football, hurling needs to accommodate its league structures to the number of competitive counties rather than vice versa.

At times the more natural and symmetrical eight-team divisions have worked well in hurling. Back in 1997 the first season played on a calendar-year basis the eight counties in Division One were all well able to keep up and the result was an excellent series of matches, drawing big crowds.

There is nothing wrong with altering structures every now and then to reflect competitive levels within the game. The issue with the hurling league, however, is that there has developed a tendency to change it significantly, that is alter the status of counties, in the committee room rather than on the field of play.

When something that was largely functioning ends up in this sort of an imbroglio what are the chances of successfully addressing situations, like club fixture chaos, that manifestly aren’t?

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