Willing to make inroads through perseverance and the best intentions
GAELIC GAMES:New president Liam O’Neill comes to office when the GAA need the right man for the job, writes SEAN MORAN, GAA Correspondent
AT TOMORROW’S afternoon session of the association’s annual congress at the Heritage Hotel in Killenard, Liam O’Neill will be officially inaugurated as the 38th president of the GAA. Only the second Laois president, after Bob O’Keeffe in the 1930s, O’Neill has the distinction of being the first holder of the office to be elected unanimously.
On the record at the time of his first run for the office in 2008 as disliking elections – his at times reserved nature not conspicuously disposed to the glad-handing demands of organisational politics – he joked about it on being returned as president-elect at last year’s congress. “I didn’t think when I made that statement that the GAA would take it so much to heart that they would elect me unopposed the next time.”
A 56-year old school principal in his home parish in Trumera, near Mountrath in Co Laois, he takes office at a time of great challenge for the GAA, with an apparently endless recession creating economic difficulties for the country at large and unsurprisingly, the country’s largest voluntary organisation is feeling the pinch, with emigration becoming a more pressing problem than at any time since the 1950s.
His rise to the highest office in the association tells a good bit about O’Neill, who has demonstrated perseverance in the face of electoral setbacks at county, provincial and ultimately national level and yet prevailed each time. Although very disappointed to lose out in 2008 to outgoing president Christy Cooney, the runner-up with a respectable 112 votes dug in over the next three years and made himself the outstanding candidate at the next election.
He did so, not by playing it safe but by spearheading progressive initiatives such as the experimental disciplinary rules that made significant inroads into foul play during the national leagues of 2009 and which only narrowly failed to secure the two-thirds majority necessary to enshrine them in rule.
A veteran of many committees in a career that has included offices such as Laois county secretary (2001-’03), Leinster chair (2005-’08) and member of Management Committee (2005-’08), he has the reputation of being decisive and rigorous in defence of policy positions adopted.
It’s nearly four and a half years since one of his predecessors, Nickey Brennan, made an interesting observation about the nature and role of the office. Speaking at the media conference to announce the appointment of Páraic Duffy as director general and the reorganisation of administrative structures in Croke Park, Brennan said: “I want to see the role of president pushed back and into the country. I don’t intend to have as much of an executive role and I believe that future presidents will have less of an executive role.”
That redefining of the presidential role has yet to take place but the indications are O’Neill is prepared to cross the Rubicon and restore a more ambassadorial style to the presidency – adopting the role of a board chairman to whom the executive should report – rather than busying himself in the quotidian workings of Croke Park. Until comparatively recently he was even hoping to be able to continue working in his school before being persuaded of the impossibility of combining the role with a functioning presidency.
It remains to be seen if these good intentions survive the assumption of office but he has already given notice of sorts by discharging what has been described as a very low-key year as president-elect. Furthermore he has decided not to step aside from his school until the end of the current academic year.
He is also acutely conscious of one of the most pressing problems facing the association. “There is a “disconnect”, or at least a perception of one. As a volunteer in Croke Park I can say that I’ve never seen people there work as hard but the membership at large often associates central administration with top-down instructions, conditions on funding and so on rather than communication from the bottom up.
“County chairs and secretaries are so inundated with the demands of keeping things afloat that each request from above is a request too many, particularly if you’re being summoned to central meetings at inconvenient times. There is a feeling that everything’s being imposed on clubs and counties but I think it’s just a desire to push things forward.”
Whereas the new president hasn’t an intercounty playing CV, he was, and remains, a hurling enthusiast, having played for and won a championship with his club Trumera, as well as being actively involved in the UCD hurling club when a student and a member of Clanna Gael Fontenoys – whose strategic plan he recently launched – during his early teaching career in Dublin.
In February, he launched the ambitious plan of National Hurling Development Committee, which he chaired, describing it as “one of the most significant days for hurling and camogie in the history of the association”. It is likely the implementation of this will be one of his priority projects in the next three years.
Very committed to the Irish language, he drove the transition of his school to the status of Scoil Lán Gaelach and speaks well in both languages. He has a reputation, which those who know him well say is undeserved, of being dour – at one stage he even had to insist publicly he had a sense of humour – and in conversation he can be sharp-witted and good company.
Maybe he had this in mind when addressing last year’s congress at which he emphasised the importance of members enjoying their involvement in the GAA.
“At times lately we have begun to take things too seriously at the expense of the fun side of being involved in the GAA. I want to do the important things well but I want people to enjoy being part of our wonderful organisation.”