Seán Moran: Motion 19 had too many loose ends - we have to talk about the provinces

A wider issue of governance is at play, not simply malfunctioning football competitions

Motion 19 was defeated after failing to get the 60 per cent majority required. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Motion 19 was defeated after failing to get the 60 per cent majority required. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Change comes dropping slow. Once that principle is accepted in the context of the GAA, Saturday’s events at Croke Park are more easily understood.

Yet this was not a classic case of an obvious reform taking inexplicably long for the penny to drop – such as the old rules 21 and 42, on the Northern Ireland security forces and use of association property, respectively.

Last weekend was an attempt to improve the football championship with a radical new format. That it achieved a majority was significant but the failure to notch the required 60 per cent was by and large foreseeable.

As long as I have been reporting on the GAA and its activities, no subject arouses responses like championship structures and in particular those governing the football championship.

Even before the advent of email, it was not uncommon for thick envelopes of hand-written ideas to land on the desk – the outcome of many painstaking hours of thought and expression – with proposals for a new championship blueprint.

It appeared at times, to echo the coarse aphorism, that everybody had one.

The problem with motion 19 – the league-based championship – was that there were too many loose ends. The task force that had produced it was in effective abeyance and in any event, split between it and the orphaned motion 18, which fell away with no voice raised in its support or indeed at all.

Those loose ends were simply a function of the report that articulated the proposals being two-years-old – and not just any two years. Through the difficulties of nearly two years of pandemic, the landscape has changed. The spilt season - invisible in 2019 – suddenly became a consensus choice and any lingering affection for straight knockout intercounty championships has by now well evaporated.

Once a special congress had been agreed, the task force needed to be evangelising. That wasn’t easy in the lockdown restrictions of last spring or in the circumstances of having two recommendations. Interestingly, the now despised Option A with its four eight-county regional conferences was probably the favoured choice originally.

That support drained away – its fatal flaw being to ask counties to relocate (even on the basis of a playoff) from their province just as the switching of the provincial championships to the decidedly non-box office months of February and March was at the heart of Option B’s failure to be accepted.

Ingrained

To overcome ingrained attitudes, a novel idea needs to be sold relentlessly. Páraic Duffy, the former DG, backed his proposal (essentially what became known as the ‘Super 8s) five years ago and worked hard at it, going on the road, taking questions and emphasising the reassurance of a three-year trial.

Ironically it too ended up as a casualty of the pandemic, as its third year will never now happen despite the current competitive landscape arguably being less hostile to it now than the two years it was tried in 2018 and ‘19.

Anyway, we have to talk about the provinces.

It’s easy to caricature provincial administration as out-dated and a reservation for dinosaurs but the model emerged well over 100 years ago and for the most part proved an efficient way of providing decentralised governance within the GAA.

The sense of provincial identity is a more moveable feast, admittedly strong in Ulster but less easy to detect elsewhere. The provincial championships have however built their own tradition and often on the basis of neighbouring rivalries.

Advocates appeared to realise too late how the provincial championships were hardwired into the way the GAA does its business

Lack of competitiveness at the top has gradually undermined their status but those local rivalries still count for something. For instance in the 19 years of the All-Ireland qualifiers, there have been nine fixtures that cropped up both in the province and in the qualifiers.

Never has a fixture had a bigger attendance in the qualifiers than in the provincial championships. This however applies to run-of-mill matches and not those taking place at the latter stages of the All-Ireland in Croke Park.

Of the eight, which allow direct comparison (ie not part of a double bill), there was an average decline of more than 50 per cent in the crowds attending the qualifier even though it was sudden-death, as opposed to the provincial championship meeting earlier in the summer.

Advocates of motion 19 appeared to realise too late that the provincial championships were hard wired into the way the GAA does its business to such an extent that ripping out all the connections was a daunting prospect.

It’s nearly four years since the ‘Towards 2034’ committee delivered its (unpublished) report on anticipated challenges for the GAA as its 150th anniversary approaches. It’s fair to say that had it been a folder of compromising photographs of the entire management committee, the report couldn’t have been buried any deeper nor any less mentioned.

Allegiance

Among the things it had to say was: “While the committee recognised the allegiance that county boards have towards the provincial championships, it deems the current imbalance in structure to be unfair and unsustainable on players, coaches and officials in many counties.

“Turning a blind eye to this issue is not an option if the GAA is to thrive and prosper into the future.

“The committee is of the view that the structural imbalances within the intercounty game must be addressed by the Association and suggests that provincial championships will be replaced by intercounty championship competitions, which will be tiered, with an over-arching committee managing all national fixtures across the Gaelic games family.”

Crucially, the report had already declared its view of the provinces’ future.

“There is arguably a need to replace the current provincial council structure with regional councils, using agreed criteria such as population size to determine the new regions rather than being constrained by current geographical provinces, all of which are of unequal size, in terms of number of counties and population.”

Now, clearly the GAA aren’t going to replace the provincial councils with regional councils within the next four months but it’s worth recognising that this is a wider issue of governance and not simply malfunctioning football competitions.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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