News Colm O'Rourke

Monday 15 September 2014

The safest thing now is not to be a member of the GAA

Published 30/11/2008 | 00:00

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Like the Irish banks, the GAA stumbles from one disaster to another when it comes to disciplinary issues. The last few days should have offered the chance for some positive publicity with the strategic development plan and the highly successful coaching forum which has been taking place in Croke Park this weekend.

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Yet the GAA is never far from meltdown when it comes to suspensions. Now it has emerged that Paul Devlin, a selector with Derry champions Ballinderry, has got himself off a 72-week suspension on the basis that he was not a member of the club and therefore could not be suspended by the Derry County Board. Devlin was given his time as a result of 'incidents' in the Derry county final when Ballinderry beat Slaughtneil.

Today Ballinderry, one of the great clubs in Derry and Ulster, play Crossmaglen in the Ulster club final.

It appears Devlin appealed the Derry Board's ruling to the Ulster Council's Hearing Committee and they found in his favour. At face value, this decision has enormous implications for an association which is struggling with its conscience when it comes to accepting sanctions imposed by the organisation itself. That struggle nearly always seems to mean appeal, appeal, appeal.

In other sports, the moral code appears to be built around a general acceptance of decisions. It cannot be that the rules of other sporting organisations are so watertight that anomalies would not arise if more cases made their way to a court of law. Yet there is far less need for legal submissions, arbitration or other quasi-judicial bodies because the culture is to take your medicine.

Of course it must mean the occasional miscarriage of justice and people who feel unfairly treated, but the GAA badly need to go back to the future on this one, a decision-making disciplinary body which is inhouse and accepted, even if it is not always right.

What the Devlin case opens up on a wider scale is the power of the GAA over an official from outside the county or, worse still, players who are not members at all. At face value, the safest thing now is not to be a member of the GAA, so if a player is sent off then he could not be suspended. It would be absolutely perverse for such a situation to arise, but it is far from unrealistic.

There are many clubs whose players are not actually members of the club; this is especially true of junior teams, maybe the third or fourth team in a club who just want to play but are not particularly concerned about the level. If they had to stump up €50 or €60 for the pleasure, then they might just as easily leave it.

This is one of the great anomalies of the GAA, nobody would play regularly at their local golf club without membership but the culture of the GAA player in many cases is to treat their club as if they are doing them a favour and they owe the club nothing in return.

Until clubs enforce the rule that nobody can play unless they are a fully paid-up member, that situation will persist. This will undoubtedly cost them players, but a club can't be all things to all men. It must stand for something and membership is one of those things. And I am quite sure that there was plenty of players in this year's All-Ireland championship who were not members of the organisation at all. Imagine if someone ended up winning an All-Ireland medal and had not paid their subscription to their club. It has happened.

So the link between membership and an ability to have some system of order is critical. Accountability is not a word that means much in Ireland today so it is important that the GAA issues a Communist-style edict, now that Karl Marx is back in fashion, that everyone associated with a club in whatever capacity must be a member. It can be easy for a club to argue, after a melee involving supporters, that they have no control over non-members but if that situation extended to the men on the field, then there is anarchy. That is the natural extension of the Devlin ruling.

In many ways, the GAA effort to tidy up discipline is now the rod that is used to beat them. By setting up the DRA to act as final arbitrator, which everyone at the time thought was a great idea, it set in motion a process of continuous appeals until the DRA ruled.

The fear of cases going to the courts has created a monster which now is draining hundreds of thousands of euros out of clubs, counties, other GAA bodies and interested individuals which could be used far more wisely as an investment in young players. What is happening now is that the most ridiculous of cases find their

way to the DRA in the hope of getting a result. This costs a lot of money and it is not going to the GAA members involved, but to the legal experts. It was a much better system when ordinary men and women made decisions, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, without all the complications of the present process.

As a member of the DRA, my wish for next year is that the body is abolished and I hope every GAA person who is on the panel and therefore has no vested interest in its continuance says the same thing. These people who are trying to do the right thing at the moment are labouring under a system that nobody could have foreseen would develop like this. Then a bit of sanity may return to discipline and if there are those who still feel a need for a day in the High Court then let them off. The total cost involved will still be much less than the present situation.

Every so often the requirement for man is reinvention. The present world banking crisis is one example where a return to simple values is necessary. The GAA is a bit like that now, one step back before taking two forward.

The sorting out of the mess surrounding all disciplinary issues and the acceptance of sportsmanship in all its forms is the step back. Otherwise, the step forward is over the edge of the cliff.

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