Choppy waters ahead for GAA


Never mind Hallowe'en and Christmas, the only occasion that really matters at this time of year in GAA land is the unique spectacle that is a club's annual general meeting. Once witnessed, the fabled a.g.m. is an experience that can never be forgotten given that it invariably involves an unseemly wrangle over All-Ireland tickets with allegations of corruption in high places (well, the club committee) over that allocation of what the chairman always describes as "our disgracefully small allocation from the county board".

And that full-blooded set-to is usually followed by the same old charade where the club secretary who has served for the 42 years since he finished at college has his arm twisted to do "one more year" even though there are no other nominations and haven't been for decades.

This year, though, as that beguiling round of club and county conventions approaches there are indications here that the waters could be a little more choppy than usual. The twin ripples of the fudging of the decision on Rule 21 and the "will they, won't they" debate over the Omagh charity soccer match have created an undercurrent of dissatisfaction that could yet be played out on the floors of the meetings and the conventions.

Frank McElroy of the Carrickmore club in Tyrone has been one of the first to put his head above the parapet. He has prepared a motion for his own club's a.g.m. next month proposing a Millennium Commission of the GAA to take stock of its current position and where it is going in the future. "It would address the existing anomalies in the GAA constitution which if not faced up to and dealt with will continue to raise their raise their heads and make a laughing stock of our association and its membership," he says.

McElroy's motion is typical of an increasing trend among GAA activists here who have been buoyed by recent political changes and are confident enough about the direction in which the wind is blowing to stand up in public and say their piece. The starting point, he says, was the Rule 21 brouhaha earlier this year. There was dismay in some circles here that the move towards deletion of the rule had been frustrated but also more widespread satisfaction that after years of inactivity and silence there was a fullon public debate. Frank McElroy's analysis is forthright. "The will of president McDonagh was thwarted by what are regarded as fundamentalist elements within our association," he says.

Confident that the Rule 21 argument has now been won at least in principle - it is now GAA policy that the rule will be removed at some stage - McElroy's proposes that his millennium commission should look at a redefinition of the "foreign games" rule, the selective leasing of GAA properties for non-GAA activities and the political versus the non-political role of the association.

The fact that such a motion should come before the a.g.m. of a prominent Ulster club with the very real possibility that it will then be debated at the full Tyrone convention in December is an indication of the glasnost that is evident just now in Ulster GAA circles.

But Frank McElroy knows that hearts and minds on the ground have yet to be persuaded. Last Sunday afternoon the Carrickmore club beat Eglish to win the Tyrone Division One League title. News of the millennium commission proposal had filtered through to the crowd at the game and McElroy concedes that there was not widespread support for what he was saying. "I know what things are like here and the same people are probably waiting in the caves for Joe McDonagh if he tries to change anything else."

The challenge, though, is how an organisation with the cultural and societal prominence of the GAA reacts to the changing political atmosphere here. If the GAA stands still while everything around it is being transformed, it runs the risk of becoming first isolated and then attacked. As political thoughts turn towards culture and what it can deliver for politicians, it is only a matter of time before one grouping or another gets the GAA in its sights.

In the past, the instinctive GAA attitude has been to go on the defensive and retreat to an insular position where it can look out warily on the rest of the world. Given the well-catalogued, systematic attacks to which members of the association were subjected during the past 30 years, this was a wholly understandable position. The GAA did all that was required of it to serve its members and the vibrancy of its games in every corner of the North is a ringing testimony to that.

But now the GAA is finding itself caught up in wider changes that it cannot ignore and with at times the dizzying pace of developments it could soon be that it will have to start running just to stand still. One of the buzz phrases here is "confidence building measures" and the clamour for the GAA to involve itself in that process looks certain to gather volume over the next few months.

The trickiest of all the banana skins that is likely to be placed mischievously in the GAA's path is the issue of British Lottery funding. Clubs here have been most adept at working the system to get lottery support for ground building and improvement schemes. But all it will take is some bright spark to argue that the exclusionary implications of the bans on both "foreign games" and the security forces should make the GAA ineligible for public support. And for anyone who wonders why anyone would bother to raise the issue, just ask yourself what exactly the raft of politicians are going to talk about here now that "normal" politics are very much in vogue.

Shifts in attitudes are likely to be more incremental than dramatic but will be no less significant for that. Frank McElroy and his Millennium Commission are one indication of an emerging appetite for something new and something modern. He says that it is untenable that the GAA should do nothing. "From Monday to Friday we're attempting to implement the ideas contained in the Good Friday Agreement but then, when we get to the weekend and our games, all those ideas and concepts are forgotten," he says. "We can't keep doing that."

Of course there will be unease and nervousness about what will be perceived as "concessions" that involve losing face and giving ground. That fear and trepidation are very natural emotions, but we are getting closer to a defining turning point when the GAA has to take a deep collective breath and stride confidently towards the future. Maybe a commission would be the best way to kick-start that process.