GAA’s unequivocal response must stamp out racial abuse on the pitch

Opportunity for Congress to send out a clear message on the issue


Scroll back a decade ago and there was general optimism that it would only be a matter of time before the GAA reflected the multi-ethnic spectrum which was beginning to define Ireland. It was and remains a thrilling idea: club and county teams made up of players whose grandparents had worn the same colours alongside team mates who could trace their grandparents to Africa or Asia or the farthest corners of Europe.

The persistent incidents of racist abuse on Ireland’s playing fields has weakened that idea and of all the reforms up for debate at this weekend’s Annual Congress, the motion listed number 54 dealing with racist (and sectarian) abuse is among the most pressing.

The make-up of contemporary GAA teams remains virtually unchanged to that of a century ago. Bloodlines matter and families who have had several generations of players distinguishing the game are naturally cherished. Parish and county identification remains the key to the GAA’s enduring success as both a source of local pride and a manifestation of what makes an area different.

The recent All-Ireland success of St Thomas’ hurling club, effectively made up of a handful of families, offered a dreamy example of a small club operating to the limits of its potential. Against that, the outpouring of joy witnessed on the streets of Dublin on the night that Pat Gilroy’s team claimed the All-Ireland championship of 2012 illuminated the importance of the Dubs in the capital.

The sad and dignified occasion of Kevin Heffernan’s funeral inadvertently illustrated that the GAA in Dublin is not really the juggernaut that it is portrayed to be: rather, it is a necklace of villages and a legacy of celebrated teams divided into very distinct eras.

Thus, the 1983 gang stood together and the 1995 team gravitated to one another and players from the current era also found one another as the crowd of mourners gathered.

[CROSSHEAD]Great things
[/CROSSHEAD]It is the nature of teams. One of the great things about the GAA season is that it doesn’t seem to change: the sleepiness of mid-league Sundays giving way to the let’s-be-done-with-it sense that often accompanies league finals and then the electric surge of those first championship Sundays. You can almost set your clock by the GAA calendar and, more often than not, the year doesn’t matter.

So the infusion into that culture of players from different ethnic backgrounds was always going to stand out. It was one of the reasons that made Jason Sherlock the somewhat reluctant celebrity that he became during the blazing summer of 1995 when his youth and devil-may-care optimism gave the Dubs the edge they needed to win an All-Ireland to which they had been tantalisingly close during that decade.

And of all the quotes associated with the voice of Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh, his observation on Seán Óg Ó hAilpín – “His father’s from Fermanagh, his mother’s from Fiji, neither a hurling stronghold” – ranks among the most beloved. It was a beautifully light way of at once making hurling seem international while localising Ó hAilpín’s family background.

The Cork man’s comments this week about the importance of passing the motion on racism was a typically measured observation masking the considerable hurt that he has experienced through racist taunting. Jason Sherlock, too, has spoken out in the past about how distressing he found comments directed at him.

Lee Chin, the Wexford player, has gone on record about the difficulties he has encountered. More recently, Crossmaglen player Aaron Cunningham was brave enough to report verbal abuse flung his way during an Ulster championship game.

The incidents are relatively isolated but that is only because the number of high-profile players from non-Irish backgrounds remains small. The fear is that the practice could carry through to schools level where the GAA, which has never been more inclusive in mindset and approach, continues to attract youngsters from all ethnic backgrounds.

[CROSSHEAD]Racist abuse
[/CROSSHEAD]Racist abuse is caught up in the general swirl of sledging which has become part and parcel of Gaelic games. Some players keep their mouths shut during games, others yap. They say anything to distract an opponent or to get under his skin.

None of it is acceptable but when the player’s actual skin is the subject of the insult, then it becomes completely indefensible. As Ó hAilpín says, to play the game without being subject to racial abuse is a very basic human right.

And deep down, there is a yearning among GAA people to share their game. From the American invasion to the current All-Stars tours to the growing number of GAA clubs in mainland Europe and Asia, there is a sense of rightful pride about the sight of the Irish games capturing the imagination of people who live thousands of miles away.

People delight in bringing foreign visitors to GAA games in Ireland because the reaction is always one of confounded amazement – at the skill and speed in hurling or the sheer adrenaline charge in football – and, of course, awe that the entire tradition is based on an abiding belief in volunteerism and amateurism.

Call them impractical or visionary but there are some who believe Gaelic games have the potential to catch on in other countries. That remains a vague ambition for now. The important thing is to make sure players who stand out because of their skin tone or appearance can play Gaelic games without interference.

Players say all kinds of things during the tempest of a game that they don’t really mean and dish out insults that are hurtful in a thousand different ways. Managers and mentors often talk about the comments fired at them from the darkness of the crowd, often by their own supporters. Referees are routinely challenged every time they blow the whistle, often in explicit terms. There is a mouthy culture in Gaelic sport which is not going away.

But to single out a player with racial taunts is a slur not just on the player but on the whole association. A failure to bring it to an immediate end would be an intolerable shame.