Five candidates in the race to become 38th GAA president

Galway’s Frank Burke and Dublin’s John Horan thought to be leading contenders

By Friday night the identity of the 38th GAA president will be known. The field for the election is the largest in 27 years with five candidates taking the tape.

Holding the vote on the first night of GAA Congress has helped to prevent the vote dominating the whole weekend but the election has been playing second fiddle anyway to the imminent debate on championship reform.

Taking the temperature of these elections is tricky, especially with so many candidates, but the generally held view is that it will come down to Galway's Frank Burke and Dublin's John Horan.

One of Burke’s advantages is that Connacht haven’t had a president since the late Joe McDonagh was elected 21 years ago; in the meantime the other provinces have had two holders of the office each. Rotation isn’t an irresistible argument but it’s a useful calling card.

Burke served under McDonagh as chair of the Hurling Development Committee during a time of great growth in the game with the changed championship structure from 1997 and the early years of the Guinness sponsorship. Latterly he has been chair of the Games Development Committee and was heavily involved in the recent annual coaching conference in Croke Park.

An All-Ireland winning hurler and All Star, Burke has also served his time in administration but his prospects – like anyone else’s in the race – will be influenced by how well they can do in Ulster, province of current president Aogán Ó Fearghail and which has no candidate this year.

Munster and Leinster have two each. Horan is seen as very strong in Leinster and likely to take most of what's on offer although Martin Skelly, also a former provincial chair, will pick up a couple of the counties but they are expected to transfer to Horan.

The latter’s biggest burden is being a Dubliner. The county is seen as very dominant within the GAA between funding, commercial clout and the current strength of its football teams and giving the presidency to the county is a step that some are balking at even though the capital hasn’t had a president elected for nearly 60 years.

Secondary schools

Horan has impressed as an administrator even though he is unusual in not having come through the county board route, which generally supplies all of the GAA’s senior officialdom. His background is in the secondary schools, a sector he represented on Central Council in the past decade.

Ironically given that his main rival is from a Galway hurling background, the former Leinster chair ended up having to deal with the westerners’ desire for home championship matches and underage involvement, which has been denied them since their move into the province in 2009.

The matter hasn’t however been settled yet and Galway have a motion calling for their minors and under-21s to be incorporated into Leinster and the smart money is on the controversy having to be resolved at national level.

Ó Fearghail was a comfortable winner in 2014 with 55 per cent of the vote but hardly anyone expects this year’s to be decided on the first count.

Three years ago Seán Walsh from Kerry polled disappointingly with 57 votes to finish third. His supporters say that he learned from the experience and will do much better this time and it is believed that he has got some traction in Ulster although the extent of that is disputed.

Nonetheless he is seen as a more dangerous contender this time even though Munster – not the biggest of provinces to start with – has a second runner in Robert Frost.

Preferences will almost certainly decide the outcome. Since the GAA adopted the single transferable vote used in Dáil elections, there is no longer any opportunity for unexpected bandwagoning, as could happen in previous years when there was a separate ballot after each candidate was eliminated. This made little difference when there were only two runners but it would have been significant in this year’s election.

It is expected that Skelly and Clare’s Robert Frost will be the first candidates eliminated but, as one observer noted, whereas geography informs first preference votes it doesn’t always apply as delegates go down the ballot paper.

For instance, Frost’s votes in Munster might be attracted away from the province by Burke’s hurling credentials. Other small things can also have a major impact. Such is the enclosed nature of the GAA electorate that individuals may have met each other at conferences or previous congresses and formed personal friendships that can outweigh regional considerations.

However it promises to be a an intriguing count and the outcome may well depend on how close Horan can get to the quota, as Burke – if as expected he is in the final shake-up – is likely to prove more transfer friendly.