John Horan has ways to go before shedding ‘Dublin John’ tag

GAA president supposed to be above the fray, but perception is that he is anything but

GAA president John Horan: ‘No matter what I say in that debate it’s always going to be seen I’m going to say something with a bit of a shade of blue on my back.’ Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

GAA president John Horan: ‘No matter what I say in that debate it’s always going to be seen I’m going to say something with a bit of a shade of blue on my back.’ Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

Fadó, fadó, in another life and another job, a couple of workplace colleagues had a beef. It never really came to a head in any significant way. It was more just a kind of simmering crockpot of passive aggression with lots of exaggerated sighs and just-about bitten lips. It was an odd one because they were both entirely placid souls with everyone else. They just seemed to trip a wire in each other, often over very little.

One of them did himself an injury playing five-a-side one time and came into work on crutches. It was a bad one, maybe an Achilles or even a cruciate. One way or the other, he had to cart himself around the place on his sticks for a few weeks, hobbling about like Tiny Tim Cratchit.

He got up from his seat at one point early on in his recovery and all eyes turned to his adversary for a reaction as he limped away. He rolled his eyes and gave a tight smile. “Christ, even his f**king crutches are annoying.”

John Horan must feel at times like he has reached a similar point with the GAA public. His throwaway line last week about how “a Dublin game is generally on a Saturday night” is by no means the most offensive remark ever to have fallen from a GAA official’s mouth. In Horan’s mind, it will have been no more than a simple statement of fact and he almost certainly didn’t give it a second thought until it started to blow up midweek.

The GAA is for everyone. That’s the beauty of it, that’s what has sustained it above all

But we are where we are. Horan is the first Dublin president of the GAA in 96 years and, rightly or wrongly, it has become a thing. It feels as if almost on a weekly basis now, he irritates the general GAA populace by saying the wrong thing about Dublin. In an association where the dice are loaded by nature, by population and all the rest of it, it’s not a good look for the box man to appear compromised.

The GAA is for everyone. That’s the beauty of it, that’s what has sustained it above all. When faith in that ebbs, something vital goes. It’s unfair to place the burden of that on Horan but when you put yourself forward for a role that is symbolic above all, you can’t pretend not to understand how symbolism works.

In general, people know two things about Horan – that he is the GAA president and that he is from Dublin. The nature of public life means, of course, that people are predisposed to imagine him compromised, regardless of whether he is or not. He knew this from the start; he even said as much this week last year.

News of the week back then was that Donegal were starting off the process for bringing a motion to congress that would deal with Dublin getting to play two games in Croke Park in the Super-8s. When Horan was asked about it, he tried to pick his steps carefully.

There was no real reason for anyone to think of his as having any shade of anything on his back at that stage

“It all depends on which side you’re coming from,” he said. “And no matter what I say in that debate it’s always going to be seen I’m going to say something with a bit of a shade of blue on my back,” he said.

It was an attempt to come across as high minded and neutral, but it just made things worse. There was no real reason for anyone to think of his as having any shade of anything on his back at that stage. He had been GAA president for only a few months and beyond the eternal background funding stuff, there had been no particular issue for him to address yet. Certainly nothing that would pit the interests of Dublin GAA against the broader good.

Indeed, this was a perfect opportunity for Horan. Nobody with any sense of natural justice thinks it’s fair for Dublin to be playing two games at home in the Super-8s. There is no justice in another county – this year it will be Roscommon, last year it was Donegal – having to play two games in a place where their opposition plays at home. This is clear to everyone who takes a minute to reason it out.

Imagine what people would think of Horan now if he had simply pointed this out when asked. If he had proposed a small change to the wording of the rule, giving each team a home game, an away game and a neutral game rather than a Croke Park game. It would have sailed through congress and right from the outset Horan would have chipped away ever so slightly at the Dublin John tag.

It would have been the smallest, easiest win imaginable. And it would have marked him out as a president for everyone. He would obviously argue that’s what he is but we’re not talking about his day-to-day work here. We’re talking about perception.

“When has this developed?” he went on to ask in the same press conference last year. “I would ask who is driving that perception. Dublin have been playing in Croke Park for a long number of years now and all of a sudden one issue over the Super-8s has kicked all of this off.”

The real pity of it is that there has never been a better time to have a Dublin president of the GAA

It doesn’t matter that he’s not necessarily wrong. What matters is the perception. He’s supposed to be above the fray, it’s supposed to be no skin off his nose one way or the other. But instead of taking a small stand that would have had a big ripple effect, he co-opted the same arguments as any bar stool jackeen would.

The real pity of it is that there has never been a better time to have a Dublin president of the GAA. Simply because of his background, Horan could change so much about how the association is perceived. The endless push-me-pull-you over funding, the Super-8s, pooling of sponsorship money, anything he put his mind to.

A president from any other county won’t have the same fair wind behind him if he tries to correct some of the imbalances that naturally occur. Had Horan decided to do that from the start – and made a virtue of it rather than trying to talk around it – nobody would be giving a second thought to what shade of colour he has on his back.

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