Burns and McCarthy set to battle it out for GAA presidency

Former Armagh captain and New York academic seeking to succeed current incumbent

John Horan: In the last election in 2017, there was a total valid poll of 278 and current president  Horan won on the first count with 140 votes. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

John Horan: In the last election in 2017, there was a total valid poll of 278 and current president Horan won on the first count with 140 votes. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho


Like the country in recent weeks, the GAA takes to the hustings this year with annual congress at the end of the month set to elect the association’s 39th president. Three years ago, the field of five candidates was considered large – the biggest since 1990 – but this time sees the same number contesting.

It is an intriguing line-up with a representative from every province plus overseas on the ballot paper, hoping to fill the position of president-elect before taking office in 2021.

Unusually, there is no-one running who previously contested the election and after a sequence – between 1990 and 2014 – of six presidents in eight elections having been the previous runners-up, the norm has been for the successful candidate to be a first-timer.

Small electorates with a high candidate to voter ratio can be hard to call but the generally held view is that the highest office in the GAA will ultimately come down to two: Armagh’s Jarlath Burns and Larry McCarthy from New York.

The other runners, Jim Bolger (Carlow), Jerry O’Sullivan (Cork) and Mick Rock (Roscommon) have profiles as former provincial chairs but may have difficulty adding sufficiently to those numbers to stay involved.

Burns is probably the best known of the candidates in that he had a high-profile playing career, captaining the 1999 Ulster champions, and has been prominent in administration in the years since, chairing the committee set up to mark the GAA’s 125th anniversary in 2009 among other more recent appointments.

He is unusual in that, like the late Joe McDonagh, he hasn’t previously chaired his county board or provincial council but has served in a number of roles on Croke Park committees. He is a familiar media presence, articulate and informed over a wide range of subjects.

McCarthy has been something of a surprise in that, having lived abroad for so long – over 40 years – he has still shown so well in the campaign, although he had already demonstrated his credentials by winning one of the two prestigious GAA trustee, or formally Representative of Congress, positions two years ago and in the process, topping the poll.

He has made it clear that should he be elected, he will be resident in Ireland for the three years of his term.

International delegates

An academic at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University, McCarthy’s disciplines are in the Department of Management, specialising in sports organisations so he brings a relevant specialisation to the task. From Bishopstown in Cork, he holds an All-Ireland club football medal, won with Thomond College in 1978.

He is the first candidate from overseas to stand a serious chance of winning and will be expected to do well among the international delegates, which number 72 – the same as Leinster – but the travelling delegations tend not to register full turn-outs.

McCarthy has further connections in his home county of Cork as well as in the west, as his club in New York is Sligo.

Bolger, O’Sullivan and Rock will command support in Leinster, Munster and Connacht respectively but aren’t thought to have exclusive hold on all of those counties whereas Burns is believed to have the preponderance of the Ulster delegates backing him.

Rock has the benefit of Connacht not having supplied a president in the 20-plus years since Joe McDonagh, who served between 1996 and ’99. Whereas there isn’t strict rotation, it can be a factor.

In the last election in 2017, there was a total valid poll of 278 and current president John Horan won on the first count with 140.

There is a tendency for support to turn very fluid in the final days of a campaign, as delegates get wind of momentum. It’s not however as prone to opportunism as in days gone by when the electoral system required fresh rounds of voting after each elimination, which often led to front runners picking up bonus support from those looking to back winners.

The candidates

Jim Bolger (Clonmore and Carlow)

Currently: Member of GAA Management Committee, outgoing Leinster chair
Occupation: Local authority Health and Safety Officer
The fact that I played and coached at club and inter-county level along with my extensive administrative experience gives me a great appreciation of what all three strands entail and informs my leadership style. One of the pillars of my candidacy is concern about the inter-county game, its financial sustainability and the issues of player welfare, as reflected in the 2018 ESRI report. I intend to set up a select committee to look at this. I envisage a radical model where the bainisteoir concentrates on coaching and team preparation with a general manager appointed by the county committee in charge of logistics and backroom recruitment. It’s getting harder to attract and retain volunteers because of time constraints, commuting, work and family demands. As Leinster chair, I organised the introduction of volunteer supports in areas like bookkeeping, data protection, health and safety, child protection. Positively received, these merit wider roll-out. . .

Jarlath Burns (Silverbridge, Armagh)

Currently: Member of Ulster Council executive, previously GAA Management Committee and Central Council.
Occupation: Principal, St Paul’s Bessbrook
I played at the highest level and lined out for my club until I was 50. I am on the DRA panel and have served on Central Council, Management Committee and as chairman or secretary of my club since 2010. I have a deep understanding of issues, facing ordinary members and have produced a toolkit for GAA volunteers. Two reports I’d like to see implemented are those from the committees on Fixtures Review and the Talent Academy, which promotes the idea of more holistic development of players rather than an elite production line . . . If I had to nominate one issue that I will feel a failure for not resolving, it’s changing the culture around the inter-county game. Niall Moyna says teams could train 40 per cent less without affecting the quality of the games. Amateur status isn’t primarily about pay-for-play; it’s about making the games accessible to all. The GPA should take a lead on this and state their players aren’t available until January 1st and during the Allianz Leagues for only two nights a week. Fine counties who fail to comply. We need to establish a demographics committee to assemble data for use in facilitating amalgamations.

Mick Rock(Elphin and Roscommon)

Currently: Chair of the National Club Committee, previously GAA Management Committee and Central Council.
Occupation: School Placement Supervisor for Hibernia College.
My main asset is that I have vast experience at every level: with my club as a player, coach, manager and in every officership as well as two decades on Roscommon County Board before serving on Connacht Council and at national level, for three years on Árd Comhairle and Management. I’m a good listener, communicator and persuader with some common sense thrown in and I have displayed leadership in both my career and in my community. The stand-out challenge is to bring about a more equitable balance between club and county activity. Year-on-year expansion of the inter-county game is marginalising the clubs and this is diminishing their status within the organisation and not just in terms of fixtures. They obviously need more calendar space and more publicity . Better resources are required to run their affairs and more support for all the new challenges. In the longer term, steps need to be taken to protect our amateur ethos in terms of the demands we’re putting on our inter-county players and the unsustainable costs on the other hand.

Larry McCarthy (Sligo GAA, New York)

Currently: GAA Trustee and Management Committee member
Occupation: Associate Professor, Department of Management, Seton Hall University, New Jersey
I bring a different perspective in that I teach on a sports management in a school of business and my area of expertise is sports marketing. I have the experience of studying sports organisations around the world. Personally it’s an ideal mesh, bringing together my professional and personal interests. I know we’re not running a business even if there are commercial aspects but it’s a voluntary sports and cultural organisation. The biggest challenge for any president is balancing all of the tensions in the organisation. I identify three currently: obviously the club versus county fixtures, between colleges and schools and the under-20 football championship and then managing the GPA and our relationship with county players.
 . . Long-term challenges include the population imbalance, the soaring cost of games but the duty of the president is to ensure that most people are satisfied. The Fixtures Review Committee has done a very good job and I like the idea of five dedicated weekends in June, July and August for club games . . .

Jerry O’Sullivan (Cloyne, Cork)

Currently: Member of GAA Management Committee, outgoing Munster chair
Occupation: Retired telecoms engineer
In a long career I have vast experience at club, county and provincial level, from playing, managing and dealing with players to administration at the highest level. I’ve listened to and learned from some of the most outstanding people in the organisation down through the years. At the moment the big issue is the streamlining of fixtures. Trying to come up with a plan that will satisfy the needs of all is a tall order because there are so many different types of player - dual players, on four or more teams and then someone, who’s just playing for one. How do you balance all of that? I think the Fixtures Review committee shows how hard the association is working to address this. Life is so hectic these days that people need to know well in advance what’s coming down the line. In the longer term I think it’s important to maintain and increase participation. I want to bring everyone along when we make changes and ensure that all voices are heard. In general though I think there’s an air of positivity around the GAA at the moment. It’s never been as strong in my memory.

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