A tenure that leaves its legacy


GAA Congress Analysis of Seán McCague's presidency: Seán Moran argues that the outgoing president dealt ably with many issues - apart from Rule 42

It is more than unfair to judge Seán McCague's entire presidency, which concludes today, on the basis of Rule 42, the contentious provision used to prevent other sports being played on GAA grounds. Before his election he made no undertakings on the matter and it would be hard to say that the GAA, as an organisation, has expressed a clear or unambiguous view on the reform.

Whereas it is easy to contrast his uncertain handling of Rule 42 with the impressive conviction demonstrated in ridding the GAA of Rule 21, which banned Northern security forces from membership, there is one crucial distinction between the two.

McCague was convinced of the need to drop the latter. Although he had faithfully supported the Ulster line on Rule 21 during his rising administrative career, his own opinion didn't fall into that rigid category. He may have had a Border upbringing in Scotstown but his father was a Garda chief superintendent.

Moreover, just before his presidency he privately conceded the ban had to go before recruitment for the PSNI began. In other words and as well put by someone close to him, McCague "had an emotional commitment to getting rid of Rule 21, which he didn't have in the case of Rule 42".

If judging the presidency by the failure to open up Croke Park is unreasonable, it's still fair to point out the errors of judgment displayed over the issue.

There may have been no doubt about his ultimate feelings on the subject (apart from an unusually emollient interview on Northern Ireland radio early in the presidency, which was widely misinterpreted at the time) but confusion nevertheless reigned.

The fate of the Roscommon motion at the 2001 Congress - failing by two votes to secure a two-thirds majority - was sealed by unseemly manoeuvrings with Government money being flung around and undermining the financial argument for abolition.

The illusory nature of that money highlights possibly the most serious error of judgment during the presidency: getting too close to the current Government. This resulted in the GAA getting used in the Stadium Ireland debate and eventually in the farce concerning the Euro 2008 bid.

Here again because of Government pressure McCague was obliged to swallow the unpalatable realpolitik of allowing Croke Park be touted as a potential venue for a major soccer championship, against all his instincts and in the knowledge both that the bid was doomed and that his organisation would get a share of the blame. Small wonder that he became a trifle tetchy as work proceeded with gusto on the emperor's new clothes.

McCague's and the GAA's reward for these serial embarrassments was the withdrawal of half the promised money.

As the term of office wound down, the president's attitude to Rule 42 became less inhibited. The decision to rule out of order a motion that had been fully debated and voted on two years ago and debated at the last congress was surprising. McCague could point to the caveat of 12 months previously when he said that he had reservations about the motion being in order.

But the potential deficiency this year (that the terms of the motion are inconsistent) seems to be different to that floated last year (the addendum to "amend Rule 5 accordingly" being too vague).

If we accept that Rule 42 wasn't an intended yardstick for the presidency any focus on McCague's personal priorities gives a mixed return. Three of his big concerns were the Strategic Review Committee (SRC) blueprint for the future of the GAA, the area of discipline on the field and the treatment of players.

The first was the presidency's Big Idea, the first overall review of the association in 30 years. It came to a dispiriting end at last autumn's special congress where reform after reform got knocked back. Some of the provisions may survive after being filtered through Central Council and Management Committee but the dynamic for change was dismantled.

Discipline had always been a speciality area for McCague. As chair of the Games Administration Committee between 1991-94, he had cracked the whip and his blunt authority had brought some order.

Similarly, his own GAC was impressive. Under the chair of Paraic Duffy (whose work across a range of areas was a conspicuously successful aspect of the presidency) discipline was meted out on a largely consistent basis and with a great deal of transparency. With the exception of one or two high-profile cases the outgoing GAC was one of the most rarely criticised branches of the GAA - quite an achievement given the sensitivity of its sphere of operations.

Its openness proved that decisions explained stand a far better chance of being accepted, if not always agreed with - a lesson that if learned will benefit more than the media.

Yet there were occasions on which McCague is said by close associates to have been close to despair. Last summer's succession of setbacks on the disciplinary front were said to have dismayed the president, from the failure of county boards to discipline inter-county players to the opportunistic pursuit of court remedies for internal problems.

In this regard McCague acted decisively and appointed a sub-committee (chaired by Duffy) whose recommendations will be debated this afternoon.

Against the backdrop of the Gaelic Players' Association's rising profile, the presidency was sure-footed. For a start McCague engaged with the GPA and also threw his weight behind Jarlath Burns's Players' Committee, which delivered a number of improvements in the lot of inter-county players - although this area and its interaction with the future of amateurism has an uncertain future.

If not everything he set out to do was accomplished, the presidency has a broader range of demands. In the execution of those McCague was largely successful. One senior GAA figure, who would not have been well disposed towards him at the start, later conceded that McCague was the best president he had dealt with.

His energy and authority brought clear benefits to the GAA over the past three years. The perception of him as a severe personality is at odds with his personal sense of humour but partly shaped by his unease as an orator (two years ago he launched a spirited eulogy about hurling being the best game in the world before a baffled Australian audience in Adelaide where the second International Rules football Test was about to take place).

But given the immense demands placed on modern GAA presidents, the association can be thankful to have people of McCague's calibre and commitment to rise to the challenge.