With little fanfare, the Gaelic Athletic Association sits down this weekend in Derry for a very important annual congress. Among the lengthy list of motions on the clár are the recommendations of the Football Review Committee (FRC) for the improvement of the game, a proposal to make available association grounds to facilitate Ireland's bid to host a rugby world cup and a re-emphasis of the GAA's anti-sectarian and anti-racist principles. The most contentious of these have been the proposals of the FRC and in particular the introduction of a black card to combat cynical, or calculated, fouling. This sanction would force the immediate replacement of an offending player for the remainder of the match. A similar measure came very close to being accepted four years ago but the momentum behind efforts to improve discipline in the games had until now faltered in the meantime. The proposal's failure would be a disappointment for GAA president Liam O'Neill, who appointed the FRC as one of his first acts on taking office. There would also be concern in the national administration at the latest setback to the future of reform.
The FRC proposals were formulated after extensive work by a committee of volunteers, all with unarguable football credentials, and one of the broadest consultation processes ever undertaken within the GAA, with 3,000 online questionnaires and 1,000 written submissions. This highlighted areas of concern in the modern game – and none ranked more highly than the issue of cynical fouling and poor sportsmanship – which the committee then tried to address. Judging by reaction around the counties, these proposals and the key concept of the black card in particular, will have an uphill journey to secure acceptance. Congress has in the past proved a tough audience for advocates of reform and the necessary weighted majority of two-thirds adds to the difficulties of having change accepted. But failure to take on board the painstakingly expressed concerns of so many would be starkly disappointing.