Buck passed around the house as Fitzpatrick joins defenders of referees

Politicians host sports bodies at Oireachtas committee to discuss epidemic of abuse and assaults on match officials

Oireachtas committees on the pressing matters of sport have proved far more cringe-inducing than this latest sitting to discuss the abuse of referees.

Nevertheless, thank you for your service, Peter Fitzpatrick TD. The former Louth football manager may need to get onto Google about delisting his most famous quote.

Seven months before Fitzpatrick was elected to the Dáil in 2011, he branded referee Martin Sludden "Dick Turpin without a mask" when accusing the Tyrone referee of "pure daylight robbery" after Joe Sheridan's injury time goal was allowed to stand in the 2010 Leinster football final.

The comments came straight after Sludden was attacked by several supporters on the Croke Park pitch. Fitzpatrick had been jogging alongside Sludden, staying in his face to protest the bad call, as players and fans shouted abuse at the match official who needed police protection.


“The one thing you learn in sport is you don’t criticise your own,” said Fitzpatrick as the joint committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media to discuss chronic levels of abuse being inflicted upon referees right across Irish sport.

“If you have nothing nice to say don’t say anything at all. This is something all organisations should have a look at.

“The biggest problem we have at the moment is when a referee makes a decision he puts it in his report and it goes to the committees or the hearings, and all of a sudden all clubs will do whatever they can to get the decision overturned. That even means getting solicitors or barristers involved.”

Fitzpatrick, to his credit, kept a straight face throughout the speech.

“This thing about, at all cost, make the referee look stupid . . . I know from being involved in sport that this is getting to be a very, very common thing. We all have to put our hands up and we have to protect the referees.”

This is the same man who, as recently as 2020, stated: “The only pity was that the referee [Sludden] didn’t have the balls to do the right thing.”

The numbers surrounding the epidemic of abuse and assaults currently being visited upon match officials right across Irish sport are stark: there were 34 cases of reported “physical abuse” of Irish soccer officials since 2019. Twenty two of these cases resulted in bans of 12 to 24 months.

The FAI have promised “zero tolerance” in the wake of north Dublin referees going on strike last month due to “constant abuse and threatening behaviour from managers, players, coaches and supporters”.

Not members

The buck got passed around the house with Chris Andrews TD demanding that clubs are directly sanctioned when a referee is targeted because “there is a culture in soccer particularly and GAA, in my experience, that it is acceptable in some ways to abuse referees.”

"Where do we stand on the sanctioning of parents?" asked Senator Shane Cassells.

"We have to look after our own house," replied GAA director general Tom Ryan. "That can be difficult when the people we are meant to pursue are not members. In fact, it is almost impossible Senator."

The IRFU are no outlier, with 27 "reported cases of abuse" in the past 12 months alone. But their head of referees Dudley Philips opted to point a long finger at South Africa's director of rugby Rassie Erasmus, who was banned for comments aimed at Australian referee Nic Berry during last summer's Lions series.

"Many people have spoken with me regarding the recent case when a coach took to social media to criticise a referee's performance," said Dudley, without naming the former Munster coach.

“Regardless of their opinion on the performance, not one person has agreed with the method chosen to get the message across. The threat to rugby if such behaviour continued would be that young players, who see and hear some of these messages, assume it is acceptable – when it is not.”

Dudley also saved some blame for “sports pundits” who in another unnamed, yet specific instance, “slated a group of match officials”.

Sean Slattery, the vice president of the Irish Soccer Referee's Society, called on the politicians to light a fire under An Garda Síochána

“In Dublin there have been three [assaults on referees] in the last two months,” Slattery revealed. “In the three instances the player was suspended for 12 months, which is the minimum suspension allowed for under FAI rules.

“The question being asked today is, what can the state do to improve the situation?

“We have always recommended to our members that if they are assaulted, to report the matter to the gardaí. In most cases this doesn’t happen, possibly due to fear of recrimination.

“Another factor we noticed over the years is that when cases are reported to gardaí, the follow up to the initial reporting of the assault seems to take a long time. Maybe the State could help by encouraging a more urgent response from gardaí when such assaults, or threats of assault, are reported.

“This in turn would lead to our members having more confidence reporting said incidents. If this happened, maybe the people involved in this behaviour could see there are real consequences to their actions.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent