GAA congress not fit for purpose

Success of black card reform shouldn’t disguise serious shortcomings in decision making process


Amidst the euphoria that washed across The Venue in Derry at lunchtime on Saturday after the largely successful efforts of the Football Review Committee to tidy up the game, it was possible to overlook a more sombre reality: GAA congress as a decision-making mechanism is not fit for purpose.

The bellwether motion four, introducing the black card, is a case in point. This was a proposal seen as crucial by Eugene McGee’s committee in combating cynical play. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary on the playing fields, a number of counties took the position that such fouls were not a problem or the old rule book was up to the task of dealing with them.

The roll of publicity accompanying these decisions made the outlook for motion four appear bleak. Opponents didn’t need much more support on the day to achieve a blocking minority.

What happened during the debate was indicative of the problems with congress. Despite all of these counties – 11 publicly stated intentions to oppose – apparently against the idea after decisions duly taken by county committee, only two delegates spoke out.

Even after GAA president Liam O’Neill had intervened to ask for contributions to provide balance to the debate, no more than those two counties, Cork and Tyrone, opposed. So, what was going on back in the counties?

Were the delegations simply won over by what they heard at congress? Not in any meaningful sense, as the “no” vote wasn’t very far off the delegates’ total for the dissenting counties. Were those delegates simply embarrassed to state their reservations in the light of the “yes” side’s conviction?

Either way, it hardly reflected well on the forensic scrutiny the proposals had received at county committee level.

Asked at the post-congress media conference was this incoherent attitude to rule change not a concern for the GAA, director general Páraic Duffy said: “I suppose it is. In terms of why counties took decisions to vote against, I don’t know beyond what I read in the media. The important thing today, I suppose, was the strength of the arguments.

“At county level they don’t hear all the arguments. Today there was a wide range of arguments given as to why we should support these proposals. People aren’t exposed to that level of debate or discussion at county board level.”

Yet around 75 delegates – taking into account that Cork and Tyrone spoke – voted against a strongly pitched message without giving any reason why they were doing so: a level of engagement that hardly merits the significant responsibility entrusted to congress.

Yes, it can be argued it’s an important unifying process in getting the association behind reforms on the basis that congress has spoken but when taken in tandem with procedures that require two proponents for every dissident it’s no wonder worthwhile change is so difficult to achieve.

Defeat would have been a disastrous setback for the GAA in general and not just specifically for reasons of improving football. The idea of volunteer delegates from the counties gathering to decide rules and policy is a feel-good narrative but the practical outcome has not always been to the benefit of the association.

It appears to have got lost amidst the demonisation of “suits” and “Croke Park meddlers” and other clichés of bureaucratic oppression – a state of perceived victimhood, readily appealing to some within the GAA – that specialist committees, appointed to address problem areas in Gaelic games and their governance are also volunteers, who give freely – in the case of the FRC, very freely – of their time in the service of the association.

Their service isn’t just that they use their expertise to identify solutions but that their work provides an advanced starting point for debate.

What sort of engagement is suggested by a process that sees carefully considered proposals shot down like clay pigeons by units that when the issue comes to national debate – at the highest decision making forum of the GAA – have nothing to say in explanation of their stance?

Maybe it’s a cultural aspect of Gaelic games that authority is so distrusted. For instance, every time the GAA attempts to crack down on disregard for rules by simply making the punishment more of a deterrent, someone gets up and expresses concern for the perpetrators.

Most recently it was poor little counties or clubs who under the black card regime, would lack the depth of personnel to underwrite more ambitious programmes of delinquency. The answer is simple: behave and you’ll be fine.

Then there is the perennial resort to blaming referees, declaring they’re the problem because they’re at best inconsistent and at worse useless. In fact they’re trained more comprehensively than ever, subject to more demanding fitness standards than ever, monitored more strictly and this year at Croke Park will even be assisted by technology.

In other words, mightn’t the rules they have to apply and those whose behaviour they regulate also share some of the responsibility?

Those rules have to be more adaptable. As things stand, the GAA has the reaction time of a canal barge. It needs to scrap the weighted majority or empower Central Council to make rule changes on all but the broadest policy issues – whatever. But something has to be done.

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