As someone who traded more on the straightforwardness of his approach to problems and a disinclination to equivocate, Seán McCague never projected himself as a prophet of change. But it’s hard to think of a president who proved as influential across a broad range of issues.
He would have seen reforms as practical measures to address problems.
At the start of his presidency, he admitted that the question of Rule 21 – the provision barring the British and Northern security forces from GAA membership – had become urgent.
That was March 2000 and the incoming president knew that with the recommendations of the Patten report about to take effect with moves to establish the PSNI, the GAA could not become a big obstacle to the foundation of a new police service by effectively blocking a huge number of young nationalists from joining the force.
A previous supporter of the rule, or at least – in a critical distinction – of the right of the cross-Border Ulster membership to support it, he had the credentials as a Monaghan and Ulster man to challenge the status quo.
He announced that he would be embarking on a series of consultations with the northern counties. There would be no progress reports but some hard talking on the future of Northern Ireland and even if the affected counties would not agree with the reform, he insisted that they allow others to reach a majority decision and respect it.
The rule went at an in-camera special congress this month 21 years ago. There was remarkably little fuss and a signature McCague reform duly happened.
Ironically at the time of his departure from office, McCague was under fire for not achieving comparable success in the matter of then Rule 42, which was being used to prevent rugby and soccer being played in Croke Park.
Even at the time this was unfair. He plainly believed that Rule 21 had to go before recruitment for the PSNI began and clearly had an emotional commitment to getting rid of that stipulation, which he didn’t have in the case of Rule 42.
There was an addendum to the Rule 42 controversy, which saw significant Government funding allocated to the redevelopment of Croke Park.
Although, at the time, there was criticism of the GAA for being too close to then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, whose personal vision of a national stadium in Abbotstown was expected to benefit if Croke Park was not opened to other sports, that’s not how it played out – whatever the intention.
That €75 million was duly allocated with no more strings attached, other than a requirement for the GAA to sign up to the Sports Council’s anti-doping protocols. Ultimately Abbotstown never happened, which left the GAA to pocket a further €36 million for the use of Croke Park when Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped.
If McCague instinctively avoided grand gestures, there was a grand plan or Big Idea in one respect. He believed that the association needed a major reset and, although he was reluctant to compare his initiative with the 1971 MacNamee Commission report on the GAA, the Strategic Review Committee, which he appointed with his predecessor Peter Quinn as chair, was essentially MacNamee II.
Initially it enjoyed much the same success as its prototype but the passage of time saw more of its ideas incorporated into GAA governance.
A personal connection that also proved influential was his friendship with Páraic Duffy, whom he had encouraged to run for the chair of the Monaghan county board in the early 1980s.
Their paths continued to cross. Duffy was one of McCague’s selectors during his years as Monaghan football manager, which is how the public first came to know the future president. He remains the most successful Monaghan manager with three Ulster titles and a national league.
He was also assistant manager to Eugene McGee in the international rules series of 1987 and 1990 and remained a staunch supporter of the international project.
Duffy once made the point that had McCague not appointed him chair of the Games Administration Committee on taking office in 2000, he would never have ended up as director general eight years later – just as McCague would never have ended up as president had Duffy’s father, Mickey, not died and left a vacancy as Monaghan’s Central Council delegate.
As a former GAC chair himself, the president had been a firm disciplinarian and that area proved to be one of the successes of his presidency, with consistency and enforcement key notes even though by the end of his three years he was dismayed by the continuing indiscipline of the games.
One of the less acknowledged achievements of the McCague presidency was the way he moved the GAA on from the radical but rejected ideas of the Football Development Committee by creating a new subcommittee with Duffy as chair to make recommendations as to how the football championship might progress.
Those deliberations produced the All-Ireland qualifier system, which was the association’s first move away from a purely knock-out format in the football championship.
His contemporary successor Larry McCarthy paid this tribute: “Seán was an astute leader at a time when the organisation benefited greatly from his wisdom, experience and undoubted influence. He served the association at every level, from Scotstown up, and he left an indelible mark on our games and the GAA as we know it today.”
Succinct and impossible to dispute.