Liam O’Neill hopes shutdown can be used to implement change in GAA

Former president says group could be set up to deal with various different matters

Former GAA President Liam O’Neill hopes some changes can be made over the current period. Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho

Former GAA President Liam O’Neill hopes some changes can be made over the current period. Photo: Andrew Paton/Inpho

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Last month, Liam O’Neill was among the first to call for the GAA simply to draw a line under the 2020 season. The former president, whose term ran until 2015, framed the proposal in terms of the need to protect communities. This week’s statement from Croke Park didn’t go that far but its keynote was caution and a belief that there will be no intercounty activity until October at the earliest.

O’Neill was happy with the association’s stance, which commits to nothing without clear medical guidance and, in the enforced shutdown of GAA activities, he told The Irish Times that he sees an opportunity for the spare time to be used in a constructive way.

“There is a plethora of people in the organisation whose energies are on hold and a host of problems that require attention. Suppose we look strategically at this and say that we can either wait this out or put the situation to good use. If we decide to do that, what are the most pressing difficulties in the family of Gaelic games?

“If an enlightened group looked at these matters, they might sit down and ask, what can we do to change things; how can we effect change and how do we discuss and consider this?

“Normally the excuse would be that there’s no time to do that because at this point of the year we’re nearly exclusively focused on the games. In the winter we’ve no time because we’re absorbed by AGMs before Christmas and then congress is coming. We can never assess where we are.”

In the current phase of social restriction the GAA has operated effectively by harnessing technology, such as Microsoft Team, to conduct distance meetings, including the recent special congress which gave the go-ahead for Croke Park’s Management Committee to take any decisions necessary to respond to the crisis and initiate any ensuing return-to-play protocols.

For O’Neill there is no shortage of issues that could be dealt with in the weeks ahead.

“Club versus county schedules, burnout for players in club and county and the third-level environment for young people and second-level schools. Maybe review the Go Games and ask are they worth extending. Find out what is our vision for Gaelic games.

“We need to look at hurling, its schedules and its map - can it be expanded? Also the other organisations, ladies’ football and camogie. The concept would be to imagine we were starting the GAA from scratch in 2021 and what it might look like.

“For the first time in the history of the organisation we’ve an opportunity to do that. We haven’t so much hit a pause button as a freeze button.”

The GAA is no stranger to formal review bodies. Only two years ago, a committee established by O’Neill’s successor as president Aogán Ó Fearghail to identify challenges ahead as the association moves towards its 150th anniversary, delivered a radical report that was promptly buried and not even released for discussion.

Previously, under Seán McCague’s presidency the Strategic Review Committee reported in 2002 and before that, the McNamee Commission in 1971. These were influential bodies whose ideas have guided the GAA over the past 50 years.

O’Neill proposes something different that would take advantage of spare time that might be on the hands of those who would usually volunteer with clubs and committees. He also envisages the widespread consultation that was a feature of the Football Review Committee that he established, which solicited the views of the public.

“I don’t see it as an all-powerful committee pondering all of these topics but an overarching body, co-ordinating and collating tasks that can be done by others. The idea would be to present a vision of what the GAA should look like in the modern world. If we were able to come back in 2021 with an agreed blueprint for the future, wouldn’t it be a wonderful use of this time?

“It will be open to everyone to contribute.

“We’ve changed more radically in the 50 years since the McNamee Commission than we had done in the previous 87. And it’s now nearly 20 years since the SRC.”

He also believes that the lockdown will leave a lasting legacy for the GAA’s administration by showing how effectively tele-conferences can work for committees.

“We’ve things like the committee on the shinty internationals, the Féile committee and there’s a Games Development Committee that meets about six or seven times a year. It’s a diverse group and when they meet everyone brings their laptop and works on it during the meeting. That could be done from home instead of bringing people from Strabane and the northwest coast to Croke Park for two-hour meetings.

For all the anxieties and uncertainties of the present, he sees great opportunity.

“I remember former President Mary McAleese saying to me once, ‘we’ve the brightest young people we’ve ever had and there’s no reason any problem can’t be solved.’

“Things can change; they will change and they have to change. There are huge possibilities for improvement and I believe people will be empowered to see that they can transform the GAA.”

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