Dublin’s commercial strength just one aspect of GAA inequality
The county system has led to dysfunction throughout history but we’re stuck with it
Dublin’s Paul Flynn celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup in front of Hill 16. The prospect of the capital dominating affairs is a cause of worry for many other counties. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Dublin could be forgiven for feeling beleaguered at the moment. This should have less to do with the legitimate comments of GAA director general Páraic Duffy in yesterday’s annual report on the subject of last year’s dismal “biting” controversy but be more concerned with the equally valid observations on the funding inequality between counties.
Duffy was at pains to point out that he wasn’t taking pot shots at successful counties but just expressing concern about more vulnerable ones. The problem with this is that if you want to address unfairness in any system, you are ultimately going to be seen as unsympathetic to its beneficiaries.
The director general’s argument was that not alone did he not want to criticise wealthier counties but that they were to be “commended for their drive and initiative”.
Not all of the arguments on this topic will however be addressed in such measured terms. Like it or not, there appears to be a fearful resentment of Dublin developing and it’s not a matter of prejudice or anti-capital bias even though it often gets expressed as such.
Yet in a way the Dublin question is just another manifestation of the unease at the heart of the GAA. Apprehensions about the county dominating the world of football and maybe in time hurling are clearly unreasonable on the basis of two senior All-Irelands in the past 18 years but there is an understandable latent anxiety.
A county with a disproportionately huge population that gets its act together, starts winning and attracting lucrative sponsorship deals is intimidating because of its potential regardless of what the current situation is – and there’s no point in trying to draw attention to the fact that counties with far smaller populations, like Kerry and Kilkenny, have actually dominated All-Ireland championships to a far greater extent without exciting much else besides admiration.
Population trends don’t stop there. Football is more national than hurling in its competitive spread but if a county hasn’t 100,000 people it’s unlikely to win an All-Ireland.
From a broader GAA perspective, what Dublin has done in recent decades is develop the games in a challenging demographic – young, urban and diverse – which previously had demonstrated declining and, in places, zero levels of interest. In doing so it helped to maintain the GAA as a national presence. Efforts so successful that they are now a matter of concern.
Inequality though is stitched into the fabric of the GAA. Duffy’s report touched on it in a number of areas. He urged realism in attitudes towards championships “based on counties, whose boundaries do not, and will never, change, so surely we cannot be surprised that some teams will usually beat others on account of their greater playing population and superior resources.”
In relation to the under-achievement of Antrim’s hurlers compared to the county’s club teams, he echoed Dónal Óg Cusack’s suggestion of an Ulster team to contest the All-Ireland championship.
The argument about financial resources was only one of a number of acknowledgements that the county system has led to inequality and dysfunctional competitions.
Asked to comment on this, Duffy’s reply was fatalistic.
“I think the allocation of resources is clearly unequal and needs to be addressed. The structure may be creaking but that’s the structure we have to stay with. I made one exception and floated the idea of Dónal Óg Cusack in terms of Ulster hurling but that’s exceptional.
Once in a lifetime
“By and large I think we stick with the county system that underpins the GAA – club and county. I wouldn’t move away from that. As I said, some of those small counties from time to time – maybe once in a lifetime – will defy all of the figures and all of the logic.”
That’s the abiding consolation. Resources may be vastly disparate and all of those counties who have never won All-Irelands may never do so but they can dream of one day in the sun.
It’s right that the GAA should consider a little redistributive enforcement but there are no realistic long-term remedies for a system that contains Leitrim and Dublin on theoretically equal terms.
Yet the struggling counties don’t want graded competitions and few of their players even want to slip off and join someone else with better prospects of success.
Maybe Dublin will go on to realise all of the fears that currently exist but the county are a long way from doing so at present and it will take even longer before anyone can say with certainty that what is happening is anything other than the latest manifestation of dysfunction in a crazy structure that has somehow survived and thrived for 130 years.