Not everyone is happy with the outcome of Kilcoo players' hearing, says Dermot Crowe
Kilcoo won their second Down senior football title in four years last October, leaving them level with Bryansford and only two adrift of the county's most decorated club, Burren. They had been suppressed for generations; the 2009 breakthrough was their first title, and final appearance, since 1937.
The Magpies were once so formidable that in the 1930s the county board felt it best to break up the club and offer the rest of the field a fighting chance. That, combined with emigration, had a big impact on Kilcoo which draws from a rural community. A major underage coaching drive has transformed them and when the Magpies ended that long wait for a senior title in 2009, they won the minor the same day, the first of three in a row.
To say recent years have been among their best and most celebrated would not be far off the mark. But the events of December 2 last, when they lost the Ulster final to Crossmaglen and became fingered in a racism row, have left the club in uncharted territory. After the match, Crossmaglen's Aaron Cunningham revealed he had been the victim of racist taunts.
"During the game I got a bit of racial abuse from Kilcoo," Cunningham told reporters. "You go out to play football in a good, sporting manner and hard-hitting and that. When race comes into it, I think it's disgusting. I don't want to let it overshadow what has been a good game and a tenth Ulster title for us but I feel it has to be highlighted, because what was said has no place on a football pitch. I don't want to repeat it but the N-word was used.
"The linesman was standing 10 yards away; I can't say if he heard it or not, he said he didn't. I told him what was said and I just felt it was absolutely disgusting. In the heat of the championship game when these things are said to you, it does rile you. I would never, ever call anybody by their creed or their race or anything like that. I was just disgusted to hear it but it will not dampen the celebrations. I just had to make it known that it was said."
Some of the officers attached to Kilcoo were unaware of the maelstrom about to erupt as they left the field grappling with the defeat and trying to rationalise how the day had gone wrong. But word soon filtered through. Immediately they worked on wording a statement which was released that evening, proclaiming Kilcoo as an "all-inclusive club which prides itself in appealing to all sections of our community, and (is) shocked and saddened to hear of any allegations of racial abuse. We as a club condemn abuse from whatever quarter and shall co-operate fully with any investigation by Ulster Council".
On the bus home players were asked not to comment on the issue on social media and the club is believed to have been fully co-operative with the subsequent investigation. They also carried out their own disciplinary action against a supporter found to have used abusive and racist language and he is now facing a 96-week suspension, the maximum allowed under rule.
The Ulster Council, through its president Aogán ó Fearghail, promised swift and decisive action in the aftermath of the match. He says the system has worked and vehemently denies charges of sweeping the issue under the carpet. A Hearings Committee imposed a four-month suspension on Aidan Branagan – it had been recommended he get six – and it exonerated his brother Daryl, who it had been proposed would receive a four-month ban.
The reaction from the victim's father was unequivocal. Joey Cunningham, who experienced racial abuse on the field during his own playing days, said after the match that the GAA needed to do something to get the right message across. "I had a number of people from Kilcoo come to me at the end of the match and to be honest with you they were embarrassed, they were apologising and that will tell you in itself that this did happen, it's not something that is made up.
"It did happen, people heard it, high-profile people who were at the ground heard it. The GAA will sort this out in whatever way they see fit; all I'm asking for is honesty. I would ask for this not to be swept under the carpet."
But following the outcome of the Hearings Committee meeting, held before Christmas but which was only revealed in recent days, he had this to say: "I'm definitely not happy with this verdict. I would like to ask the question why the six months was rounded down to four months. For them to round it down to four months makes a mockery of this issue that they are trying to sort out. This verdict is really, really disappointing from my point of view. The Ulster Council made all the right noises and said all the right things after this happened so what I'm hearing at the moment is very disappointing."
On Thursday, the issue appeared to have run its course as far as Crossmaglen was concerned, even if the father of the alleged victim didn't think so. Talking the same day, Joe Kernan was anxious that they put it behind them. There is the immediate priority of an All-Ireland semi-final against St Brigid's on February 16. "They have moved on, it is done and dusted," explained Kernan. "It's put to bed, move on, end of story – that's it. I know for a fact the club just want to move on, it was addressed."
As for the episode being a force for positive change, Kernan is hoping common sense will prevail. "Hopefully now that it is brought out in the open," he said, "that that will be the end of it. Sometimes you have to bring things to a head."
But on the same day the Belfast Telegraph reported Oisín McConville saying in response to the reduction in penalties: "An evidence-based case was made. This sends out the wrong message altogether." He applauded Cunningham's courage in exposing "despicable" racial abuse. "He is a very intelligent young man and he obviously thought that by highlighting the evil it would help focus minds and maybe improve things going forward. But look what has happened. The matter has more or less been brushed under the carpet and I have no doubt that the problem will rear its head again.
"I would imagine that if Aaron were to turn the clock back knowing what he knows now and be faced with making the decision to air his views in public he would in all probability be saying to himself: 'Why should I bother?'"
And McConville was adamant that Kilcoo should have accepted the recommended suspensions rather than seek a hearing. "There appeared to be irrefutable evidence. I don't think what has happened now shows the GAA in a good light."
ó Fearghail points out that a suspension, twice the minimum allowed, was delivered despite no evidence from the match officials and the player denying the charge. He said this was a substantial suspension for an inter-county player and would impact significantly on his county career. In the case of Daryl Branagan, he said: "We have to be fair and the Hearings Committee obviously found that there wasn't sufficient evidence to convict. We have a meeting next week and will be completing the whole disciplinary matter. We have clearly identified a supporter we felt merited being dealt with. The club has been fully co-operative."
A motion is being forwarded to Congress from Wexford, a county which has seen two players and, separately, an umpire suspended in the last 12 months on broadly similar charges. The motion seeks to introduce a mandatory red card for racial abuse. If new rule change proposals for Congress from the Football Review Committee are passed, a player would be sent off for "abusive or provocative language or gestures to players", receiving a black card and allowed a replacement. The GAA itself may formulate a motion arising out of recent racist incidents as there is no rule dealing with this kind of abuse at present.
In Kilcoo, meanwhile, they will soon be getting ready to return to training. The irony is that while the club is in the dock for a breach of discipline it would have been impossible to have achieved their renaissance over the last ten years without exemplary levels of self-control and good behaviour.
One member recalled a time 18 years ago when two local teenagers were tragically killed coming home from a function. The recent atmosphere of despondency brought those dreadful memories flooding back. "It's been a nightmare," he stated.