Harte entitled to his views but not entitled to speak for the GAA

Country’s biggest sporting organisation has no position on the Eighth Amendment

It was probably inevitable that the GAA was going to get tangled up in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment somewhere along the way.

The association is in the country’s bloodstream – a generally positive state of being and yet not always one in which it necessarily delights. This is one of the situations in which its very ubiquity feels like more a curse than a blessing.

The GAA’s greatest strengths – connectivity within communities, the name recognition of its leading practitioners, its thriving brand – make it ripe for being co-opted by any and all causes that take a fancy to it. It has ever been thus.

There isn’t a political party or cause in the State who hasn’t plugged into the GAA mainframe at some point or other, with or without the association’s blessing. Usually, if only in the interests of a peaceful life, without.

Conor McMorrow's terrific book Dáil Stars is littered with examples. One story he tells goes back to the 1964 Galway-East by-election, won for Fine Gael by three-time All-Ireland medallist John Donnellan.

Fianna Fáil’s riposte – and you have to admire the neck, on a certain level – was to claim Donnellan was elected purely on the back of his football exploits and that Fine Gael had presented this as his sole electable quality. As if the very notion offended the delicate sensibilities of the soldiers of destiny.

"The Galway jersey was displayed in that election and there are none so blind as those who do not want to see," said FF senator Mark Killilea. "A GAA official denied that the GAA was used in this election," wrote FF's outgoing Tuam secretary, one P Talty. "But this we cannot agree with. It was most definitely used as an election gimmick by the Fine Gael hierarchy."

None of this typical political manoeuvring is especially notable except for the familiar passing mention of the GAA official.

Denying that the GAA is being used to further a political cause has been the lot of the put-upon GAA official since the organisation began. As a course of action in times of quarrel, it is well-worn, predictable, occasionally disingenuous and basically the only way to survive and move forward. Over half a century later and the terms and conditions remain the same.

Which is why, regardless of what side of the Yes/No fence they personally come down on, officials in Croke Park will have cause to be livid with Mickey Harte after Saturday. That said, it is also why they are likely to keep their counsel on the matter and simply play out time until the result is announced on May 26th. For better or worse, it's the GAA way.

Skills session

The Tyrone manager appeared at an event billed 'GAA Athletes for a No Vote' in Ballyfermot along with former Meath player Joe Sheridan, Antrim footballer Patrick Gallagher, Derry camogie player Aoife Cassidy and Galway player AnneMarie McDonagh. They put out a statement, did some interviews and ran a skills session for local kids.

On the face of it, there’s not a massive amount in there for the association to be too unhappy with. All known history would suggest they’d have preferred their name to be kept out of it, just as all known history practically guarantees that something like this was sure to happen eventually. And if it was, that the Tyrone manager was unlikely to be too far away.

In an association the size of the GAA, there will be Yes people and there will be No people. Nobody with even a passing knowledge of Irish sport will have been surprised at Harte’s position on the repeal question. Similarly, if you’ve followed his career at any level over the past 15 years since he took charge of Tyrone, you know he’s not likely to duck any issue about which he has strong feelings. In many respects, there is no news here.

That is, until you get to the statement put out behalf of Harte and co.

“The GAA’s vision,” it begins, “is that everyone be welcome to participate fully in our games and culture, that they thrive and develop their potential, and be inspired to keep a lifelong engagement with our association.” It goes on to includes lines such as: “We are an inclusive organisation. There is space for everybody at our table.”

All the way through, the statement is littered with ‘we’ and ‘our’ – in reference to the GAA as a whole. When it gets to the meat of the statement, it reads: “In keeping with those principles, we are coming together today to ask the Irish people to vote No on May 25th.”

There is no gear change, no line separating their own personal views from that of the association, nothing like that. To anyone reading the statement, it looks like a declaration of the position of the GAA on the matter.

Which, of course, it is not.

The GAA has no position on this and will have no position other than to take a thoroughly dim view of anyone purporting to speak on their behalf. It was no surprise, therefore, to find yesterday that Croke Park was in the process of informing its units around the country that the organisation was to have no involvement in the campaign. All it would have taken was another handful of these events through the coming week to reach a critical mass.

Mickey Harte’s views are clearly deeply-held. But they are his views – not the GAA’s – and he has a responsibility to make that clear when he speaks on the matter. Any muddying of the waters is just playing politics and it does him no credit at all.

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