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Jarlath Burns: After a perfectly conducted apprenticeship, a daunting agenda looms

An accomplished administrator and communicator, he knows that only so much can be done in three years

Jarlath Burns officially takes the chain of office as the 41st president of the GAA on Saturday afternoon, at the GAA’s annual congress in Newry. He arrives with a couple of easily grasped distinctions – there hasn’t been such a prominent former player in the office for nearly 20 years when Nicky Brennan was elected; he is the first cross-Border president since Fermanagh’s Peter Quinn, three decades ago.

The 56-year old also ticks numerous other boxes: a fluent Irish speaker, someone with a proven dedication to his club Silverbridge in Armagh – he has been secretary and chair for a long time, even up to his election last year – and an effective administrator on a litany of GAA committees, at national and provincial level since he retired as a player.

His playing career made the most of what he had. Neither the most technically accomplished nor speediest of footballers, he was big, intelligent and an excellent leader.

Brought back into the county panel in 1995 by the joint-management of Brian Canavan and Brian McAlinden, Burns quickly became a key element.


“In the second year we had a young panel,” according to Canavan, “but not many leaders so we asked him to be captain. He was a very good speaker in the dressingroom, no roaring or swearing but he communicated with conviction. He also led on the pitch. Tyrone beat us in ‘97 but he was Man of the Match.”

The late flowering of his career enabled Burns to captain Armagh in 1999 to a first Ulster title in 17 years. A competitive defeat by Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final was the final battle but he went out on his shield, drawing this tribute from opposition manager Seán Boylan.

Had he not won the provincial medal, he acknowledged that his career would have been a disappointment but in the end there were no regrets.

“Yeah, that’s it,” he said after the match. “You know, a lot of fellas have played for their whole life and not had the chance to play the games I played in and had the experiences I had or met the people I did and there is just no point in looking back with any bitterness.”

As an administrator, he was quickly into his stride. A year later, then president Seán McCague appointed him chair of the Players Committee, a kind of shadow group for the emerging Gaelic Players Association. It wasn’t always a comfortable tenure given the sniping that defined the GPA’s relationship with the GAA but he brought enough stature to the position to maintain largely peaceful relations.

A forceful advocate but even-tempered and good at listening, he would chair the GAA committee for the 125th anniversary in 2009 and went on to serve on many other bodies.

On top of all that, there was a busy career in education, which led in 2013 to his becoming principal of St Paul’s Bessbrook, a large secondary school whose enrolment has grown to 1,800.

Given his grasp of the language and acuity as an analyst, Burns was a natural co-commentator on TG4 but also on BBC. When Armagh won the 2002 All-Ireland, there was a memorable scene of his ripping off microphones to dash down to the pitch to be with many of those he had soldiered with at the end of his own career.

If there was a snag to the roll call of achievement and commitment, it came in politics. From a nationalist-republican background in South Armagh, he never denied his provenance and also engaged in many high-profile outreach programmes at his school, such as pupils engaging with and learning about the Orange Order.

He caused a stir in some circles by advocating a willingness to drop the Irish flag and anthem at matches were such an initiative going to make Gaelic games more attractive to the unionist community although at other times he became disheartened by the relentless hostility of some antagonists.

Five years ago, he told RTÉ that the GAA should back a vote for a united Ireland in any border poll arising under the Belfast Agreement.

It was a view, maybe naively expressed, that may have helped him lose the 2020 election. Certainly, his politics cropped up as an issue. When he convincingly won his second tilt at the office last year, he was asked about those views and answered honestly on the subject of abolishing partition.

“That is my dream and it is not a subversive dream to have. It is a very valid perspective, particularly in the context of Brexit but we would have to do it very responsibly.

“I don’t think it would be unreasonable of us to say that we would want to see our land united because even practically it doesn’t work, partition.”

He knows however that this is an unlikely issue for his term of office, the agenda for which is already piling up – whether on the now declared timetable for integration with the women’s Gaelic games, which ordains it should be complete by 2027, the redevelopment of Casement Park or a variety of self-declared priorities.

These include trimming intercounty budgets – a subject with which he has a personal connection given his and wife Suzanne’s son, Jarly is an Armagh player – the protection of amateurism and a focus on hurling, which may involve filling the vacancy created by Martin Fogarty stepping down as national director of hurling.

He is so personable and hard working that anyone would have to give him an even chance at success but as he said himself on election, the issue of presidential ‘legacies’ is nonsense. The term of office is only three years long and you do what is in front of you.

It just so happens that there is quite a lot in front of him.

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Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times