Congress redundant if delegates unwilling to voice membership’s concerns

As a broad policy making body and a sounding board for members, it should still have a key role

The 2015 GAA Annual Congress which  took place at the  Slieve Russell Hotel, Co Cavan.  Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho

The 2015 GAA Annual Congress which took place at the Slieve Russell Hotel, Co Cavan. Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho

 

Friday night at GAA Congress: the lost hours. The agenda isn’t intended to start that many fires but equally, delegates have become accustomed to not flicking the ignition switch.

This hasn’t always been the case. Twenty years ago, the first day of congress was buzzing with intrigue over whether a motion on the abolition of Rule 21 (barring members of the British security forces from membership of the association) would actually be debated even though listed on the clár – it wasn’t.

Six years on and news emerged that the Government had fired a large cheque (€75 million) onto the top table of congress in order to subsidise the ongoing redevelopment of Croke Park. This had a radical impact on the weekend’s proceedings, removing at a stroke the force of any financial arguments in favour of opening up the stadium to rugby and soccer – a debate that was listed for the following day and which failed by a whisker to get the two-thirds majority.

Accepting that with Rule 21 and 42 either gone or amended beyond recognition, there isn’t as much scope for high-octane debate as there used to be there are though other reasons why Friday night at congress has become a dull affair.

Some of the items aren’t meant to be major productions: the Youth Committee presentation and the National Draw are in-house events and details of the financial report have already been made public.

Director general Páraic Duffy would like further discussion on his annual report but there appears to be an attitude amongst delegates that the lengthy document is a work of art in itself rather than the basis for practical discussion and so it proved again at the weekend.

Sky broadcasting

Reacting to the this development Clare county chair Michael McDonagh told the Irish Examiner that congress should have heard these concerns: “I believe it’s the place to discuss such a motion and whether it’s successful or not at least it showed the ordinary member of the GAA could get his point across through their clubs or county boards. I know a number of other counties wanted it discussed . . .”

Yet on Friday there was only perfunctory discussion of the issue, which occupied a prominent place in Duffy’s report. Delegates appear to have no interest in talking about topics that aren’t going to go to a vote. This was an opportunity for those unhappy with the pay-wall on championship matches, to make their feelings clear. No-one did.

The most comprehensive speech on the matter came from Duffy himself during his right of reply.

Nor is this simply a Friday night matter. Of more concern to the GAA is that it is part of a trend regarding congress as a whole. Two years ago one of the most heated issues of recent years came to the floor of congress. The most important and controversial of the recommendations from the Football Review Committee was the black card.

There was a strong presentation by the committee and a succession of speeches in support but despite more than one quarter of the delegates opposing the measure, only two counties – Cork and Tyrone – spoke against the motion.

In other words the rest of the opposition vote gave no reasons why they were against such a significant proposal, which reflected a worrying lack of engagement, something that Duffy at the time accepted.

“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.”

Serious motions

Afterwards Duffy and new president Aogán Ó Fearghail both argued at the press conference that this lack of engagement was partly explained by the counties’ thrashing out a position in advance of congress, assisted in doing so by better information and communication from Croke Park. In other words – and Duffy accepted this – congress is becoming a less deliberative forum.

None the less this reached at times Kafkaesque levels with motions blitzed on the vote despite no-one having spoken against them.

In recent years congress has become more and more about alterations to rules. There is now a section every year concerned with purely technical issues, identified and addressed with forensic precision by Frank Murphy and the Rules Advisory Committee. There is no reason why this type of runner-stamping shouldn’t be assigned to Central Council.

Congress has always been too unwieldy for serious powers of governance but as a sounding board for membership concerns and a broad policy making body it should have a role. If it has got to the stage where delegates are no longer inclined to speak up about the concerns of the membership at large, it’s time to give the voting handsets a longer range, post them out to the counties and save what money is spent on staging Congress. smoran@irishtimes.com

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