Seán Moran: Just like the Tories, the GAA is also fed up with experts

It’s a wonder the GAA continues to find experts willing to volunteer for anything

2020 GAA Congress, Croke Park, Dublin Photograph: ©INPHO/Ken Sutton

2020 GAA Congress, Croke Park, Dublin Photograph: ©INPHO/Ken Sutton

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Much loved British Conservative politician Michael Gove conjured one immortal quote back during the 2016 EU referendum when he said that he believed, “the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”.

He did claim, not without some validity, that his first 10 words had been taken out of context, but the sense of injustice was hardly enhanced by it taking eight months to make the explanation public.

In the meantime this has become almost a credo for a certain type of populist politics: never mind the evidence – go with your feelings.

It’s unlikely that GAA president John Horan was trying to align himself with this tendency after congress but there were echoes of it when he spoke about revisiting and tweaking some of the motions that had narrowly failed on the floor of congress.

“The wisdom of the whole organisation,” he said, “is more important than the wisdom of an expert group.”

Either way, he was only speaking the truth because whereas you might hesitate to say the GAA invented this sort of stuff, for quite a while the association has built up a proven track record of deciding it knows better than experts.

One example of this goes back to initial attempts to get to grips with burnout when Dr Pat O’Neill presented a report, replete with almost Gothic details about the strains on, and consequent damage to, young players, which included among its recommendations the replacing of under-21 and minor with a new under-19 grade and restrictions on county training.

David Hassan, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Playing Rules, speaks during GAA congress. Photograph: ©INPHO/Ken Sutton
David Hassan, chairman of the Standing Committee on Playing Rules, speaks during GAA congress. Photograph: Ken Sutton/inpho

The key motion was well defeated amid familiar sounding arguments that under-21 was too important and that there were other – unspecified – ways to deal with the issue.

The fact that a group of medical doctors, academics and administrators had given of their time for nothing to analyse a problem, demonstrate its gravity and come up with solutions wasn’t enough to persuade a special congress just over 12 years ago and this was not an isolated phenomenon.

In a way it was a wonder the opposition vote even got as far as 18 per cent such was the gale of fatuous platitudes gusting around the place

At the weekend’s congress, David Hassan, long suffering chair of the Standing Committee on the Playing Rules, went through the now familiar frustrations of proposing something – in this case the black card in hurling – with an evidence-based argument only to be met by non-engagement and a thumping defeat.

Hassan may well go down as one of the GAA’s early-21st-century martyrs. If so his marble tomb with be inscribed with encounters like Saturday’s to say nothing of the gross breach of confidentiality, which leaked details of the 2018 sub-committee he chaired to oversee the appointment of Páraic Duffy’s successor as director general – as it turned out, Tom Ryan.

Anyway, there Professor Hassan was, going through the data that showed cynical or calculated fouling to be a significant issue in hurling, as much if not more so than in football, which now at least has a deterrent.

His underlying argument was that the existence of cynical fouling had been accepted so as he reasoned, “knowing that and consistently deciding to do nothing is contradictory”.

He identified two principles on which this was based: ensuring that it doesn’t pay to foul and endeavouring to reward skilful players.

There’s no need to detail the dismal litany of speeches, which followed: extolling the virtues of the game, refusing to engage with the case for and offering no alternative way of addressing the issue.

GAA President, John Horan. Photograph:Credit ©INPHO/Tom O’Hanlon
GAA President, John Horan. Photograph:Credit ©INPHO/Tom O’Hanlon

One point encapsulated the opposition to the idea of a black card and sin bin in hurling. It was made by Antrim chair Ciarán McCavana, who cautioned: “Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken”.

This was despite the proposer’s patient detailing of what was broken. In a way it was a wonder the opposition vote even got as far as 18 per cent, such was the gale of fatuous platitudes gusting around the place, although it was disappointing that no one could summon up the gumption to advocate the contrary view.

John Horan accepted afterwards that he was concerned by the quality of the debate, which certainly undermined his public defence of the ‘wisdom of the whole organisation’.

“Personally, I wouldn’t be satisfied with the way it was pushed back by high-profile characters coming out and whereas they’ve never fully denied that cynicism is there in hurling and we know that, see some of the tackles but yeah, they railed against it.”

Malachy Clerkin on these pages earlier in the week drew attention to the contrast between the way in which rule changes are treated in football and in hurling by highlighting the dispatch – one proposer and no speakers – with which a significant change in the football rules was introduced on Friday night.

 It almost appears as if the modern disposition to disregard expertise and researched evidence is finding further fulfilment in the blasé acceptance of rules that haven’t been tested to any extent.

This too has a history. Ten years ago in Newcastle, Co Down, congress decided one Friday evening to redefine the hand-pass by supporting a motion from the Connacht Council even as they were in general treating work-shopped motions on the playing rules like clay pigeons.

The only thing missing was that instead of calling on proposers, then president Christy Cooney might have been shouting “release!” so that delegates could take aim.

At the weekend just gone, Kildare club Raheens piloted through a restriction on passing back to goalkeepers, something that not alone hadn’t been trialled but wasn’t even debated and it’s coming into force almost immediately.

It almost appears as if the modern disposition to disregard expertise and researched evidence is finding further fulfilment in the blasé acceptance of rules that haven’t been tested to any extent.

It’s a wonder the GAA continues to find experts, who by their nature tend to be busy, willing to volunteer for anything.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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