What do you think of these days, when you hear someone described as coming “from a good GAA family”? More and more now, I hear that phrase and think – “lawyers are paid enough money to come up with something a little more subtle than that”.
It is the stock in trade of a man (and let’s face it, it’s almost always a man) desperately using anything in their power to paint himself as a decent skin, a solid pillar of the community, as he stands in front of a judge and jury. There have been enough off-field legal entanglements involving prominent GAA people this year to fill a (heavily-redacted) book, it seems. But that phrase keeps returning to me.
In the midst of all the arguments over what can and cannot be proven, or written about, or discussed, one thing sticks out. The fact that someone “is a good GAA man” is still seen as a powerful descriptor.
This has, of course, absolutely no relevance whatsoever to what he did or didn’t do, but it nevertheless attempts to weaponise the GAA’s position in Irish life.
When new Derry football manager Mickey Harte gave a character reference in February of 2013 for Ronan McCusker, who had pleaded guilty to a horrendous sexual assault, the accused’s lawyer said the defendant “comes from a highly regarded family in mid-Ulster who are widely known within the GAA”.
In Hot Press later in 2013, the great Derry journalist Eamon McCann wrote the judge “singled out the character reference from Harte as one of the ‘mitigating factors’ which led him to pitch McCusker’s sentence towards the bottom of the range; 2½ years, 15 months in jail, 15 on licence. In fact, the PSNI has informed the victim that McCusker will be freed next January”, which was just 11 months after sentencing.
So why is it that judges would want to hear about a person’s sporting preferences before giving them a custodial sentence? It must be effective, as the judge himself appeared to suggest in the case in which Harte made his ill-advised intervention. Why don’t more lawyers stand in front of a court and tell people that the man standing in the dock before them is a dyed-in-the-wool West Bromwich Albion fan, for instance? Cliches don’t become cliches for no reason.
The picture legal professionals are trying to paint when they bring the GAA into the courthouse is an attempt to suggest that here is a person whose community trusts them and believes in them. It’s become a shorthand for “you don’t need to worry about this lad”. They are trying to say that this is a person who knows the value of volunteerism, the value of altruism and respect for one’s peers.
These are all, for the most part, characteristics you would expect to find in most GAA people. But – and here’s the kicker – that is also the case for anyone who involves themselves in any other amateur sport (and of course that includes the lower levels of whatever professional sport you’ve having yourself). The GAA is the most prominent, the most penetrating example in the country, however. And I hate that one of the corner stones of the GAA can be turned in on itself.
There’s no special dispensation given to a person just by dint of being a GAA member – the GAA is no more or less susceptible to having bad actors in its midst than any other organisation made up of thousands of people. All of human life is in the GAA, good and bad. To presume otherwise is pointless, and in fact dangerous.
There’s a former intercounty manager who has paid his debt to society for obtaining money by deception from an elderly man in the 2010s. I’m not saying that the man should be ostracised from the GAA, but I’ve heard him described as “a great hurling man” so many times in the last few years that it almost seems pointed.
It’s a little like that Orwellian phrase “he’s not that kind of player”, taken to another level. This suggests that a player has done something that a player like him would never do ... the only slight fly in the ointment being that we’ve just watched him do it. Whether that person is “a good GAA man” or not, he’s not acting like it. At what stage do we take into account a person’s actions before deciding on the content of their character?
The GAA’s greatest asset is its members. It’s a truly wonderful thing to be able to sit down beside a stranger, find out each others’ club, and piece together an idea of their background and their upbringing. But it can’t mean a presumption of good character. I don’t know what the GAA can do to reclaim words like “he comes from a good GAA family”, but you can be sure that if you hear it being used more and more, it starts to mean less and less.